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Presidential Transition Day: Some Interesting Stories

by Rich Rubino on January 11, 2017

Protocol dictates that the outgoing President leaves a note to be read by his successor upon taking office. This practice began when Ronald Reagan left a note for his successor George H.W. Bush, admonishing him: “Don’t let the turkey’s get you down.” The President then welcomes his successor to the White House. The outgoing and incoming Presidents sip coffee together in the Blue Room before entering a limousine, which will take both Presidents to the Inauguration ceremonies.

Once noon strikes on January 20 (The date was March 4 until 1937), the Chief Justice of the United States swears in the new President. The new President then observes the Inaugural Parade.

About 100 White House employees under the tutelage of the Chief Usher then rush to move out the outgoing President’s belongings and supplant them with the new President’s belongings. During the Inauguration, the Inaugural Parade and Inaugural Ball, the expectation is that the President’s residence will be transformed from the carpeting in the Oval Office to the clothing in the closets.

It is worth noting that there have been times when the outgoing President refused to attend the Inauguration of the new President. In 1801, John Adams, who lost a vituperative campaign to Thomas Jefferson, traveled directly home to Massachusetts without meeting Jefferson. Adams was livid at Jefferson, who had hired political pamphleteer James Callender to destroy Adams’ reputation during the Presidential campaign. Callender successfully spread a mendacious story that Adams’ ambition was to invade France if elected.

His son John Quincy Adams followed suit in 1829. He did not even welcome his successor to the Executive Mansion (now called the White House). The two electoral combatants had been engaged in a political battle royale. Adams’ supporters called Jackson’s wife Rachel an “adulteress” because she had not completed her divorce from her first husband. Mrs. Jackson died days before the election. An inflamed Jackson put the blame on Adams for his wife’s death, averring: “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”

This day was also historical in that Jackson was the first commoner to assume the Presidency. Many of the “common folk” who elected him traveled to the nation’s Capital, some arriving at the Executive Mansion even before the President arrived. The crowd became increasingly inebriated on the orange rum punch, causing the event to devolve quickly into an unruly mob of obnoxious drunkards. As the large crowd pressed toward the new President, Jackson feared that he might be suffocated from the disorderly and unruly mob, and subsequently fled the Mansion through a first floor window, seeking refuge in a nearby hotel.

Inauguration Day in 1889 was a rainy day, forcing outgoing President Grover Cleveland, who Benjamin Harrison had just defeated, the indignity of holding an umbrella over Harrison during the downpour. Earlier that day, as the Cleveland’s were leaving the Executive Mansion, First Lady Frances Cleveland eerily told the White House Staff to “Take care of the place. We’ll be back.” Sure enough, after beating Harrison in 1892, the Cleveland’s were back in power for a non-consecutive four-year term.

Sometimes Presidents continue to work on the last day of their Presidency. In 1845, outgoing President John Tyler signed legislation declaring Florida the twenty-seventh state in the Union. However, Tyler also suffered a setback that day when Congress achieved the requisite 2/3 vote of both houses of the U.S. Congress to override his veto of proposed legislation to eliminate the President’s plenary Executive authority to purchase revenue-cutter ships. This was the first Presidential veto to be overridden in U.S. History.

In 1913, on his last day in office, William Howard Taft signed legislation creating the Federal Department of Labor as a Cabinet Department. The department today employs over 17,000 people.

In 2001, Transition Day came on a Saturday, the day when the President traditionally delivers his weekly radio address. Bill Clinton did not cancel the address, instead using the occasion to actuate a pledge he made “to work until the last hour of the last day.” Clinton announced that his administration is “awarding more than $100 million to fund 1,400 more police officers in communities throughout our land.”

More controversial, Clinton used his last day in office to issue 140 Presidential pardons, including a pardon for financier Mark Rich, a fugitive living in Switzerland who was charged with 51 counts of tax evasion in the U.S. Rich’s wife, Denise Rich, was a major donor to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and to the U.S. Senate campaign of Clinton’s wife Hillary. This pardon led to a federal investigation. Federal prosecutors ruled that Clinton had not operated illegally.

Perhaps the most agonizing Presidential last day occurred in 1981. Outgoing President Jimmy Carter spent most of the last two days as President assiduously trying to win the release of the hostages seized by Iranian students in 1979. The next to last day in office the U.S. and Iranian governments agreed to The Algiers Accords. The U.S. agreed not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and in turn, Iran agreed to immediately release the 52 Americans it was holding hostage. However, Carter’s nemesis, Ayatollah Rudolph Khomeini, did not officially release the hostages until Carter’s term officially expired, allowing the new President, Ronald Reagan, not Carter, to announce the freeing of the hostages.

The limousine ride itself can be awkward when two Presidents from different political parties are forced to sit next to each other for the ride to the capitol. In 1953, outgoing President Harry S. Truman viewed Eisenhower with derision for his failure to condemn U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) after McCarthy suggested that Secretary of Defense George Marshall was enveloped in a Communist conspiracy. Truman branded Eisenhower “a coward.” Moreover, Truman thought little of Eisenhower’s political dexterity, deadpanning: “The General doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Eisenhower returned the contempt, refusing to meet Truman in the White House for the traditional coffee. He instead waited in the limousine until Truman came out. The banter on the ride down Pennsylvania Avenue was contentious.

During the ride to the Inauguration, Eisenhower asked Truman who had ordered his son John to return form active duty in the Korean War to attend his father’s inauguration. Eisenhower feared that the public would view this as his son receiving preferential treatment. Truman testily retorted in the third person: “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing-in of his father to the Presidency. If you think somebody was trying to embarrass you by this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.” The two men had a rapprochement later in life, becoming good friends.

There is much planning that goes into Presidential Transition Day and into transforming the White House that day. Outgoing Presidents leave their thumbprint anywhere they can before leaving office. Although it is custom for the outgoing and incoming Presidents to at least be cordial to one another, this is sometimes a challenge, as the two Presidents may be bitter political rivals. While Presidential transitions usually appear seamless to the American people, they can be awkward and even contentious behind the scenes.

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