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.