THE transference of executive power from one administration to the next, while elegant in concept, is often not so pretty in practice. For a member of an outgoing administration, the time between the first Tuesday in November and the inaugural in January is too often spent in confusion, in anger, on a well-deserved vacation, or in search of employment.
Often, very little thought is given to the transfer of what the outgoing officeholders learned while they held the public trust. That's an unfortunate byproduct of the winner-take-all election cycle that political parties and the media have created every four years. George Washington warned of the excesses of political parties, claiming that they "distract public councils, enfeeble the public administration and agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms."
This admonition was one of several items of advice included in the first president's farewell address on Sept. 17, 1796. In that message, Washington left his countrymen a written account of the sentiments, reflections, and observations of a chief executive who had "contributed toward the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable."
The address was Washington's "political testament," a valedictory to the people who had entrusted him with the nation's highest office.
It was also an account of what he learned while holding that office: of the sanctity of the union; of the efficacy of the Constitution; of the divisiveness and distractions of political parties; of the importance of separating federal departments and functions; of the need for a dispassionate foreign policy.
On Monday, Jan. 11 at the campus of American University, an unpretentious yet similar "debriefing" was given by US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and David Kearns, the deputy secretary, along with a few presidentially appointed members of their executive team.
The session was organized and taped for television by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), a bipartisan national organization dedicated to the furtherance of education reform in the communities and states that pay 93 percent of the country's annual education bill.
While markedly less solemn than George Washington's political testament, the American University session turned out to be a constructive venture.
Opening the meeting, Frank Newman, president of ECS, leapt quickly to the point: "What we want to find out from you who have been entrusted with federal office for the past few years are answers to the following questions: What were you doing? Why were you doing it? What did you learn?"
What ensued was lively, introspective, and historically useful. The videotape will be employed by ECS as a teaching tool for legislators, school superintendents, parents, teachers, governors, and others who may want to know what the Bush administration has been doing in education during its term in office and how that might compare with the proposals and record of the Clinton administration four years from now. Mr. Newman has already spoken with Education Secretary-designate Richard Riley about a similar
televised briefing and debriefing at the beginning and end of his term.
About the same time that the education department's "debriefing" was being prepared, Adm. James Watkins, at his office a few blocks away on Independence Avenue, was putting the finishing touches on a report of his own.
It took the form of a letter to the multitude of committees with jurisdiction over the Department of Energy's programs and appropriations. It included a thorough discussion by the outgoing secretary of the mission that he had undertaken, his successes and failures, what he had learned, and what still needed to be done.
The American University "debriefing" and the energy department's end-of-term summary may suggest a better way to conduct rites of political passage.
Why not ask Cabinet members and their senior officers to use the time between election and the end of December to prepare a written report or testament about what they set out to accomplish, what was actually done, and what was learned? That compilation of reports would be published and presented to the new Congress in early January.
In the days immediately prior to inauguration, committees with jurisdiction over the subject matter of a particular Cabinet department would make time available to hear Cabinet officers who wish to discuss or pass along any advice or recommendations they might have for the new government.
Such a process, I believe, would give dignity and purpose to the end of a term of office. It would enhance the historic record. It would clarify the sometimes mixed signals currently being sent to citizens who dare to answer a call to public service. It would provide meaning and mission for retiring officials during the time between election and inauguration.
And maybe, just maybe, it would add a scintilla of wisdom and perspective to the science and art of governance.