The Awkward Interval: America's Long Transitions

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Summary: Presidential transition periods have survived great changes and difficulties over the years to become the expensive, highly publicized events that they are today. But are America's relatively lengthy transition periods still useful? Many observers stand by them as a necessity and as a sign of stability in the country.

God created the world in six days and saw that it was good. It's taking Bill Clinton 2 1/2 months to create a new administration, and the verdict won't be in for quite some time.

Okay, so Clinton is only Time's "Man of the Year," not God. Still, why does a new presidency take so long to create? The British change governments virtually overnight; French presidents take over in less than a week; only in countries that have to round up the fleeing members of the ousted government and shoot them does it take as long to change governments as in America.

In the early days of the republic, an even longer transition - till March 4 - allowed the Electoral College time to gather, vote and send the results to Washington. The incoming president also needed time to fight his way through the winter elements via horse or, later, by rail to take up his duties in the nation's capital.

President-elect Clinton will begin his inaugural week at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate, before replicating Jefferson's route to Washington. However, Jefferson's trip took four days, while Clinton's bus motorcade through Northern Virginia - replete with eight chartered buses, limousines, motorcycles, police vehicles and ambulances - will last no more than four hours, including a one-hour service at Culpeper Baptist Church.

Such is the progress since the days of horses and coach. That fact of modern life received official recognition in 1932 with the passage of the 20th Amendment, which moved the inaugural date up to Jan. 20. However, despite quadrennial grousing from a handful of political scientists, don't expect further speeding up of transitions.

"Everybody, every year that I've been in one of these," notes Philip Brooks, a National Archives historian on the inaugural committee, "says |My God, it takes so long; why don't we move it up?' Then when they really get into the planning of the inaugural itself, they realize how convenient it is to have at least 60 days."

It hasn't always been so convenient, especially when the transition period has covered a time of fullblown crisis. The winter of 1860-1861 saw the breakup of the union while power was transferred from James Buchanan to Abraham Lincoln. During the transition of 1932-1933, the last time that the inaugural took place on March 4, the banking industry went into free-fall as the Great Depression hit rock bottom.

This was an ordeal special to that transition - "the most traumatic since 1861," says George Nash, a biographer of Herbert Hoover. An initial postelection meeting between Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt went well enough, but the relationship between the outgoing and incoming presidents began to deteriorate almost as fast as the banks. Ironically, the 20th Amendment had already passed, but it did not go into effect until after the 1933 inauguration.

Hoover "felt that Roosevelt had deliberately refrained from cooperating" in measures that might have saved the economy, says Nash. FDR took 10 days to respond to a note from Hoover, later claiming that it had been misplaced.

FDR, for his part, thought that Hoover was attempting to trap him into a course of action that he might not wish to continue in office. The president-elect "believed that Hoover had the power and he should do what he saw fit," says Nash.

Hoover, however, believed he could not act without a signal from November's victor Both men were trapped by the respective roles they found themselves in. "It was a tragedy," says Nash.

More recent transitions have, for the most part, lacked such conflict. …