Monday, January 2, 2017


When President George Washington voluntarily and graciously
turned over his high office to John Adams, his vice president, in
March, 1797, the news was received with surprise and awe in the
capitals of Europe and the rest of the then civilized world. In
those places, power was almost always held tenaciously and
indefinitely, passed on to family heirs, or taken by force. Even in
the nascent French revolution which had toppled a dynasty of
kings, power was held by force without any formal and natural
institution of transition. General Buonaparte soon ended that
revolution by declaring himself emperor and launching war
against his neighbors.

If we today still hold Mr. Washington in heroic esteem, as he
was by his fellow citizens in his own time, it might be useful to
also remember how great was his contemporary international
esteem when he turned down a royal title or continued power in
his young republic.

Since that time, the seamless and peaceful transfer of power has
been the hallmark of U.S. democracy, and is followed all over the
world where genuinely free elections take place.

While U.S. transitions are peaceful and seamless, they have been,
on occasion, not without tension and controversies. The most
notable transition in U.S. history was perhaps the one from the
single term of President James Buchanan to President Abraham
Lincoln in March, 1861. Mr. Lincoln had clearly won the election
by a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral
college vote, but his assumption of executive office was so
unacceptable to many southern slaveholding states, that a civil
war erupted. In later years, peaceful transitions followed, but
on occasion after the violence of assassinations (including

In the 20th century, a transition occurred in March, 1933 while
the nation was in severe economic depression. The outgoing
president, Herbert Hoover, had been defeated at the polls the
previous November by the incoming president, Franklin
Roosevelt. The week before the inaugural (then scheduled on
March 4), a national banking crisis had become acute, and Mr.
Hoover in his attempt to relieve the crisis tried to enlist the
president-elect to help him. But Mr.Roosevelt, who held a
different perspective on how to solve the crisis, demurred, thus
incurring the wrath of Mr. Hoover. The two men, riding in a car
to the inaugural ceremony a few days later, did not speak to each

Since there is a periodic change of political parties, as well as
personalities, at inauguration time, all is not without some
tension in the interregnum period, which now goes from
election day to January 20. On those relatively rare recent
occasions when a new president is from the same party as the
outgoing president (most recently, January 20, 1989 when George
Herbert Walker Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan), there is not
tension but celebration between the two figures. Even when the
transition is not between presidents of the same party (such as
Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon in 1969, Gerald Ford to Jimmy
Carter in 1977, George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton in 1993, and
George W. Bush to Barack Obama in 2009,) the principals have
acted with notable civility and good manners.

Of course, it is understandable that outgoing presidents wish to
finish up their business as positively as possible, and to leave as
good an historical legacy as they can. Last-minute pardons and
executive actions are always on the agenda for any “lame-duck”
president who, after four or eight years of extraordinary power
and attention, has to suddenly retire to the political background.

The 2017 transition seemed to begin rather well shortly after
Donald Trump’s upset victory in early November. President
Obama invited President-elect Trump and his wife to the White
House for a cordial tour, conversation and photo-op. Subsequently,
the transition has become rocky, as both President Obama and
President-elect Trump, each with quite different public policy
views, have maneuvered to gain an upper hand. In fact, however,
the incoming president holds most of the cards, and most of the
actions the outgoing president takes are primarily provisional
gestures made as a final psychic demonstration of his almost
exhausted power.

With about two weeks to go before the inauguration, and a new
Congress sworn and in place, the political pond is in a uniquely
provisional moment. Lame ducks still are swimming in it, but
will soon be replaced with a new flock now en route. After an
especially bitter and unprecedented election cycle, there will be
a few stray fireworks, controversies and exaggerated media

But make no mistake about it, there will be new ducks on the
pond soon enough.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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