Political Takeovers: How to Manage White House Transition

Article excerpt

Presidential transitions can be a messy business, and where foreign policy is concerned a dangerous one, too. Think back for a moment (if you have strong nerves) to the 1992-93 transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations. Not only did the incoming president have surprisingly little grasp of how his comments as president-elect would be received abroad -by Saddam Hussein, among others - but the transition process cooked up by this apparently intelligent man was so inefficient and convoluted it made your head spin. This took several weeks after the general election to get under way, involved huge numbers of people, and focused on bean-counting according to categories of sex, ethnicity, race, geography, sexual preference -rather than more mundane criteria, such as job qualifications. Writers for conservative editorial pages who had been beset by deep depression since the Republican loss of the White House in November, perked up considerably in December when it became clear that the new Democratic incumbent would give us plenty to write about. (Yours truly was one.) Meanwhile, liberal editorial pages wrung their hands. During the melee over nannygate problems in the Justice Department and gays in the military, the New York Times memorably editorialized for a "time out" and told members of the nation's political class to put their heads on the table for a 15-minute nap.

Looking at "Presidential Transition and Foreign Policy" was the purpose of the discussion at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, where former National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, among others, laid down markers for a successful presidential transition. With both Republicans and Democrats in attendance, as well as Reaganites and Bushites, it was exactly the kind of practical discussion Washington needs.

The fact is that presidential transitions don't have to be logistical nightmares. In recent times, the smoothest presidential transition was 1980-81, between Presidents Carter and Reagan. Most importantly, the Reagan team had an unusual degree of ideological cohesion, belief in a common cause. Second, transition preparations directed by Mr. Allen and domestic policy adviser Martin Andersen, now of the Hoover Institution, got under way as soon as Mr. …