Lost In Transition

To a President-elect, staffing a new government looks easy next to the challenge of getting elected, but a number of circumstances—some structural, some historical, and some quasi-magical in character—combine to make it an undertaking fraught with risk

If history is any guide, the President-elect will soon be making some key personnel decisions that will haunt him throughout his term. Serious error is all but inevitable, given the range and sheer number of the appointments (several hundred of the more than 3,000 to be made overall) he must make, and given the relatively short time—the two and a half months between his election and his inauguration—the President-elect will have to make them. Of the decisions made in those seventy-three days, one former Jimmy Carter aide remembers, “We won the election but lost the transition. We never recovered from the mistakes we committed then.” The transition, as the interregnum between Administrations is popularly known, can be a fateful time not only for the new President but for the country. For example, would the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations have become entangled in the coils of Vietnam if John F. Kennedy had disregarded his brother Robert’s advice and appointed Senator William Fulbright Secretary of State instead of Dean Rusk? Kennedy respected Fulbright; he knew him; he could communicate with him. Yet he chose as his chief foreign-policy adviser a man he did not know and with whom, it turned out, he could not communicate. Fulbright was an early and eloquent critic of the widening Vietnam involvement. Rusk was an architect and defender of that involvement. Would Fulbright have taken the same line as Secretary of State in 1962 and 1963 that he did as a senator in 1965 and 1966? Would his voice have been persuasive enough to counter the voices of the hawks in the Kennedy and Johnson Cabinets? Would he, in short, have made a difference that could have made THE difference? These questions serve to remind us of what’s at stake in presidential appointments and why it might be useful to review the nature and recent history of the appointment process.

Making appointments, of course, is not all a President-elect must do. He must also make basic organizational decisions about his own executive office and its relations with the departments and agencies. He and his subordinates must establish liaison with the outgoing Administration and with the permanent government. Although formal authority rests exclusively with the incumbent President, power rapidly begins to shift to the President-elect, and the permanent bureaucracy and foreign governments look to him for signals indicating his future direction. Public denials notwithstanding, past Presidents have begun to use domestic bureaucracies and conduct diplomacy well before they assumed office. For example, in the interregnum of 1932-1933, between the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations, the Hoover Treasury Department helped to draw up what has since become famous as the Roosevelt “Bank Holiday” plan. A President-elect must also interpret his election mandate and decide which campaign promises to keep, which to suspend, and which to forget. He must, in short, develop an administrative and legislative program.

None of these tasks can be carried out, though, until a President-elect begins to make personnel decisions. From a pre-election perspective, winning is an all-consuming task, and making appointments looks easy. It is, however, “a minefield,” to quote Pendleton James, President Reagan’s first director of personnel—one that he “tiptoed through daily, and sometimes I stepped on one of the mines.” “A Goddamn nightmare” is how certain of Carter’s aides refer to personnel operations in that Administration. Harris Wofford, who was a member of Kennedy’s recruitment team, says that the transition was a terrible experience. When he looked at the offices filled with people looking for jobs, he says, he was reminded of the story in which Abraham Lincoln literally had to climb over office-seekers. “Every time I make an appointment,” President William Howard Taft lamented, “I create nine enemies and one ingrate.” Today the ratio has only increased.


In all walks of life people tend to hire people they know and Presidents are not immune from that tendency. All Presidents have, though, found it necessary to reach out beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances and appoint strangers to their Cabinets, independent agencies, and regulatory commissions, and even to the White House staff itself. As Kennedy explained to his aides soon after his election, “For the last four years I spent so much time getting to know people who could help me get elected President that I didn’t have any time to get to know people who could help me, after I was elected, to be a good President."

Among the avowed and obvious criteria that newly elected Presidents typically use in choosing personnel are substantive knowledge, managerial experience, personal loyalty, philosophical compatibility, team spirit, ability to withstand bureaucratic or special-interest pressure, creativity, and skills in press, public, and congressional relations. In addition, new Presidents, to one degree or another, want their appointees to reflect various parts of their constituency or of constituencies they hope to acquire—ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and so on. Because of his narrow mandate, Richard Nixon explained in his memoir, he knew that some of his choices for Cabinet posts “would have to serve, even if only symbolically, to unite the country, and 'bring us together.'” He was not very successful in this regard, however: several prominent Democrats and blacks including Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Sargent Shriver, and Whitney Young, either turned him down or imposed unacceptable conditions.

Some appointments, even to the Cabinet, have been rewards for long-standing political loyalty. In the past, ambassadorships were sometimes payoffs for financial contributions to a President’s campaign. In Governor Michael S. Dukakis’s highly effective campaign apparatus, fundraising coordinators from Massachusetts have been given the honorary title of “ambassador.” Whether any of them become real ambassadors remains to be seen. Wholesale office-buying under Nixon caused Congress to limit the contributions that individuals could make to candidates. But the influence of money has proved as hard to expunge from politics as the lust for power and preferment.

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