Smoothing the bumps to the White House

Past Cabinet members and staffers offer lessons on how to ease the move

When John Podesta signed on as staff secretary at the Clinton White House seven years ago, he arrived to find his personal computer missing its hard drive. His Republican predecessors had removed this modern-day filing cabinet, leaving only wires.

It was a stark reminder of how, in many ways, the White House is nothing but an empty shell when a new president takes over. Documents have been removed, and empty desks clog the hallways. No one is there to explain the divvying up of limited parking spaces, or infinitely more important, the nuts and bolts of launching a new administration.

This uncertain period can trip up a freshly minted president - as the nation witnessed when gaffe after gaffe highlighted the start of the Clinton administration. In the past three decades, only Ronald Reagan has successfully managed a smooth slide into the Oval Office, says presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar.

But chaos need not reign at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year, says Ms. Kumar, a professor at Towson University in Maryland. Searching for common keys to successful transitions, Kumar and about a dozen presidential scholars are assembling a kind of White House owner's manual. Funded by the Pew Foundation, it will be given to the new team right after this year's elections.

No institutional memory

The most extensive study of its kind, the project is based on interviews with 75 current and former White House officials back to the Nixon administration. The interviews cover seven jobs crucial to getting a White House moving, including the chief of staff, the personnel director, and the president's legal counsel - who vets the appointees.

Unlike a corporation that takes on a new chief executive officer, the White House offers no institutional memory for its new boss. "You're left in this ambiguous position where you have the greatest opportunity to make a mark but the least capacity to do it," says Kumar. According to Kumar, candidate Clinton fell into common traps. The biggest one: his focus on winning without sufficient planning for what would come immediately afterward.

While President Reagan's chief of staff was announced in November, President Clinton waited until December to announce his. Most of Clinton's staff were not appointed until the week before his January inauguration - too late to take advantage of the available briefings and materials from their Bush administration counterparts.

Clinton's other common error was to load up his key positions with loyal campaign workers and "friends of Bill." Fresh from victory, many of these energetic thirty-somethings had little knowledge of how a White House actually works.

For instance, it was a mistake to have both George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers brief the press - and to give only Mr. Stephanopoulos walk-in access to the president, former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry explained to Kumar.

"Of course, anyone [with experience] would have said, 'Whatever you do, make sure the press secretary has the access necessary to accomplish the job,' " Mr. McCurry said.

Clinton's early problems were compounded by the fact that the main job qualification of his chief of staff, Mack McLarty, appeared to be that he was the president's boyhood friend.

"The first two years of the Clinton administration were like a soccer game at school: All the kids go after the ball at the same time," recalled Leon Panetta at a recent Heritage Foundation forum on the presidency. Mr. Panetta, a former member of Congress and also Clinton's budget director, eventually was brought in to restore order and replace Mr. McLarty.

"There's a natural tendency to appoint people who come out of your campaign, who know you and understand you," said Panetta. But a certain amount of Washington experience is needed, he explained, "because Washington is not your typical state capital."

In the modern presidency, Kumar says, Mr. Reagan did the best job of preparing for his transition - perhaps because he knew what it took to run a mega-state like California.

Reagan approach different

In the spring before the 1980 elections, Pendleton James, a California headhunter who also served in the Nixon administration, was asked to discreetly collect information on possible appointees for a Reagan White House.

The emphasis was on government - rather than campaign - experience, and the early attention to personnel allowed the president-elect to assemble his team shortly after the election.

Briefing books listing everything Reagan had said on the issues during the campaign were brought out as screening of appointees began.

Edwin Harper, of the Reagan transition team, explained to Kumar:

As Cabinet officers were selected, "my staff and I briefed each of them on, 'Here's what the president has promised the American people he was going to do. If you've got any questions about that, we ought to discuss it right now.' "

The mistakes of the Clinton administration are perhaps less likely to be repeated if either George W. Bush or Al Gore occupies the Oval Office. Both men have intimate knowledge of the White House. Also, both parties have now had fairly recent stints in the White House, so there should be potential staff members from previous administrations to tap.

Even so, Kumar makes no assumptions about the transition potential of this year's crop of candidates, saying it's still too early to assess.

And as Panetta exasperatedly observes: "The lessons that are so obvious in this town are never learned."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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