My grandfather, Harry S. Truman, initiated the protocols for the peaceful transfer of presidential power as we know them today. He invited President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower to send over his Cabinet and staff so they could kick the tires, as it were — be briefed by their predecessors, attend meetings, try out the office chairs.
“New cabinet members often have trouble taking over,” Grandpa wrote. “But being briefed as they were, and being allowed to sit with the members of my cabinet and seeing what their functions were, Eisenhower’s people didn’t have any trouble. It was the first time in the history of the country that these things had ever been done, and it was the most orderly turnover in the history of the White House.”
Grandpa wanted Ike to be able to hit the ground running, without suffering a fate similar to his own. Because Franklin Roosevelt compartmentalized, when he died on April 12, 1945, Grandpa ascended to the presidency knowing virtually nothing about how the White House had been running things.
(I once joked to David Roosevelt that his grandfather hadn’t told mine a damned thing about the job. When I saw David the next morning and asked him how he was, he said, “I’m not gonna tell you.”)
Presidential transitions have not always been smooth or polite. John and Abigail Adams sneaked out of the White House in the dead of night, Grandpa wrote, “so he wouldn’t have to make a turnover to Thomas Jefferson, because he didn’t like Jefferson and was jealous of him, as well …”
Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, waged such a vicious campaign against Grandpa’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson, in 1828 that Rachel Jackson, a sensitive woman who hated politics, died as a result. Adams’ campaign was so ugly, said Massee McKinley, that when Jackson won, thousands of his supporters stormed Washington to “make sure the Adamses kept their hair on straight.”
Massee McKinley, founding partner of Peerage Communications in Atlanta, is a presidential descendant double-whammy. He is the great-grand-nephew of William McKinley and great-grandson of Grover Cleveland. He added that Jackson’s supporters ultimately paid less attention to Adams and more to the president-elect himself, packing the White House in such numbers that Jackson feared for his life and ducked out the back.
James Buchanan aided and abetted the Confederacy before losing the presidency to Abraham Lincoln. Herbert Hoover considered his successor, FDR, to be ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the presidency and initially refused to be photographed with him.
More recently, Clinton staffers left George W. Bush’s incoming team with broken furniture and trash in the halls, including pizza boxes. There was also the rumor, unfounded, that some jokers removed all of the “W” keys from the computer keyboards.
Despite the smooth Truman-Eisenhower transition, Grandpa’s relationship with the president-elect was not good. It started well. In fact, when Gen. Eisenhower returned from World War II, Grandpa liked him so much he offered his support for an Eisenhower presidential run. Twice.
Eisenhower politely declined and went on to serve as chief of staff of the Army, supreme allied commander in Europe and president of Columbia University, during which time he and Grandpa got along just fine. But when Ike decided to run for president in 1952, things took a downward turn.
My wife, Polly, and I are friends with two of President Eisenhower’s granddaughters, Susan and Mary Jean, so I’m careful about how I one-sidedly describe the rift that developed between our forebears. Suffice to say that by the 1953 inauguration, they had exchanged barbs and insults, although politely by today’s standards, and were no more than civil when forced to appear together in public. On the ride from the White House to the Capitol, they barely spoke.
Yet the transition was, as Grandpa said, a most orderly turnover, thereby ensuring continuity and solidarity of purpose. In the telegram to Eisenhower inviting him and his Cabinet to the White House, Grandpa wrote:
“I know you will agree with me that there ought to be an orderly transfer of the business of the executive branch of the government to the new administration, particularly in view of the international dangers and problems that confront the country and the whole free world. I invite you, therefore, to meet with me in the White House at your earliest convenience to discuss the problem of this transition, so that it may be clear to all the world that this nation is united in its struggle for freedom and peace.”