Since launching in January 2020, Transition Lab has offered a close look at the world of presidential transition planning, featuring in-depth interviews with those who have organized, led and written about some of the most notable transfers of power in U.S. history. In this episode, host David Marchick shares the most important takeaways, poignant stories and surprising moments from these interviews. Utilizing episode highlights, presidential recordings and historical news clips, Marchick takes us back in time–from the 1930s to the present–to illustrate how transitions work, why they are important and the lessons they hold for both today and tomorrow. Topics discussed include the importance of good staffing; why transition teams and campaign teams don’t always get along; how successful transitions breed successful presidencies; why bipartisanship during a transition matters; and how administrations try to learn from the missteps of previous transitions. Transition Lab is the official podcast of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives to make our federal government more effective, innovative and responsive to the people it serves.  

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Read the highlights:

Marchick talked to Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, who discussed why Harry Truman’s transition plans–the first to be organized by a sitting president–went awry.

Kumar: “[Truman] thought that it would be good to have both sides come into the White House. It was during the summer of 1952 in August, and he invited [Democratic presidential nominee] Adlai Stevenson and [Republican presidential nominee] General Eisenhower to … get briefed by the CIA … individual Cabinet members and White House staff. Eisenhower was not in favor of doing it. So he wrote [Truman] back turning down the invitation. Truman was very unhappy and … wrote, ‘I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us. You have made a big mistake and I’m hoping it won’t injure this great Republic.’”

Marchick talked to two top policy advisors in the Carter administration, Stuart Eizenstat and David Rubenstein, about the distrust between the Carter transition and campaign teams.

Eizenstat: “David and I were heading the policy staff of the campaign. And unbeknownst to us until about a month before the election, Jimmy Carter had a parallel policy planning group for the transition…”

Rubenstein: “You had people fighting over jockeying or positions and you couldn’t really prepare that well for the new administration because people didn’t really know who [was] going to get what jobs.”

Eizenstat: “Yes … because you had these parallel structures, because you had this clash, it took up an enormous amount of time.”

Rubenstein and Eizenstat also discussed how poor staffing, including Carter’s initial decision to serve as his own chief of staff, hampered the administration early on. 

Rubenstein: “Carter was obsessed with getting the Cabinet done. The White House staff? [He said], ‘Well, staff people are not that significant. Who cares about staff? We’ll deal with that later’… He didn’t really feel he had to have very powerful people at the White House staff because in his view, everything was going to be in the Cabinet.”

Eizenstat: “He decided to be the opposite of Nixon. Nixon had [H.R.] Haldeman as the all-powerful chief of staff who blocked everyone from seeing him. So [Carter] decided he was going to be his own chief of staff.”

Ronald Reagan learned from Carter’s missteps. Before taking office, Reagan hired James Baker, a veteran of Washington politics who ran two Republican primary campaigns against the president-elect in 1976 and 1980, as chief of staff. Marchick asked Baker to discuss his surprising hiring. 

Baker: “I don’t think it will ever happen again in American politics where a president-elect will go to someone who has run at least two campaigns against him [and ask him] to be … their White House chief of staff … He was looking for someone who knew and understood how Washington worked.”

Importantly, Baker established a strong working relationship with Reagan’s transition director, Ed Meese, who had also expected to become chief of staff. 

Baker: “The next morning I met with the president and he said, ‘Jim I want you to be my White House chief of staff … but I want you to make it right with [Ed] Meese.’ And I said to [Ed], ‘Let’s figure out a workable way to divide up the responsibilities in the White House’…. My job was to make sure the trains run on time, and making the trains run on time meant I had to have authority over the congressional relations, press relations [and] political relations, and operate from the chief of staff’s office, which is the biggest office in the West Wing.”

Marchick also interviewed Mack McLarty, President Clinton’s chief of staff, who discussed why Clinton downplayed transition planning as a presidential candidate and explained how he repeated Carter’s mistake of selecting a Cabinet before hiring important White House staff. 

McLarty: “Governor Clinton had a strong feeling … that he did not want to be seen as an underdog candidate, or a younger candidate, who was already beginning to measure the drapes in the Oval Office. So his instinct was not to have a robust transition.”

McLarty: “You either have to [select Cabinet and White House staff] simultaneously or, perhaps even better, focus on the White House staff first and then quickly move the Cabinet.… There was just not enough work done before the election. And once you get behind, it just does not leave you any room to catch up.”

Marchick interviewed Clay Johnson, the head of the George W. Bush’s transition team in 2000, who explained why the president-elect was prepared to take office despite a delay in the official election results. 

Johnson: “He said, ‘I want you … prepare a plan for what I do when I win the presidency.’ This was in June of 1999. So it’s 16 months or so before the presidential election. I don’t think anybody’s started that early…. I [told] Bush that summer, ‘When we get to within a month or so from the election, I’m going to be encouraging you to pick your chief of staff. So you might be thinking about who it ought to be.’ And he did, [selecting Andy Card, one of the earliest chief of staff picks in U.S. history].”

Marchick also spoke with Stephanie Cutter, a spokesperson for the Obama-Biden transition in 2008, about why transition teams need to set aside partisan difference after presidential elections and continue to govern for the good of the country.

Cutter: “The Bush team couldn’t have been more helpful. We were working so closely in cooperation with them and they were being extraordinarily helpful to us because of the economic crisis that we were in. As soon as you move from a campaign to a transition, out goes the campaign rhetoric. It’s not ‘Bush’s economy’ this, and ‘failure’ that, it’s what are we going to do? It’s looking to the future. It’s putting real plans in place.”

More recently, Marchick interviewed Chris Christie, who chaired Donald Trump’s transition team from May 2016 until shortly after Election Day. Christie discussed how he relied on many of those who had run presidential transitions to prepare for a Trump transition and explained why a personnel shakeup of the transition team after the election hurt the administration.  

Christie: “I met with Andy Card, who along with Vice President Cheney ran the transition for the George W. Bush team. I met with Jim Baker, who was instrumental in the Bush 41 transition and in the Ronald Reagan transition. And I also met with a number of other folks who were involved around the periphery in those transition efforts … They said, ‘You don’t have a day to waste. The government is bigger and more complex than it’s ever been’.… [The Monday before Election Day], we turned over 20 volumes of materials to the Trump campaign, for them to be ready to begin to execute on Wednesday.”

Christie: “[Shortly after Election Day], Steve Bannon asked if I’d come see him in his office. So I went down to his office and … we sat down and … he [said], ‘ We need to make some changes.’ And I said, ‘OK. What changes are we making?’ And he [said], ‘You.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he [said], ‘Nope. Vice President Pence is now going to be the chair of the transition and you’re out’…. They still haven’t recovered [from Christie’s firing and transition leader Richard Bagger’s resignation] … because you cannot recover from the loss of all of that work. And even if they win a second term, they won’t catch up because you gave away that 150 days or so you can never get it back. And those are 150 very important days.”

George W. Bush had the shortest official transition in history at just 39 days, but secured more political appointees during his first year in office than any other modern president. Clay Johnson,who served as the executive director of Bush’s transition and later as director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, tells host Dave Marchick how Bush brought many of his personnel practices as Texas governor to Washington, how he started his transition early, solicited advice from seasoned Washington veterans and maintained a focus on planning for the new administration even the results of the 2000 election were in dispute.

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Read the highlights:

After the contested results of the Nov. 7, 2000 presidential election, the country had to wait for the Supreme Court decision on December 12 before recognizing Bush as the president-elect. Marchick asked Johnson how the transition team proceeded during this time of uncertainty. 

Johnson: “On the day after the election, nobody knew how long it was going to take to resolve. We were just all standing at parade rest. We were shuffling papers, remembering what our goals were and just continuing to work on it privately. Maybe 10 days into it, (transition chairman and Bush’s running mate) Dick Cheney decided, and I’m sure he talked to the president about this, we have to assume we’re going to win this thing. We have to prepare as if we know we’re going to win it.” 

Marchick asked Johnson who he turned to for advice on the presidential transition and what advice he was given. 

Johnson: “(Former Secretary of State and Treasury) James Baker and (former Secretary of State) George Schultz were just invaluable people and they were so welcoming. The general direction that I got from them was to ensure you have clear definitions of success regarding what you want to try to accomplish and by when. (They said ) don’t go in looking for general things you need to do, but develop the list of things that you want to accomplish by specific dates.” 

“We set specific goals…We wanted to be able to communicate that we are working hard to prepare to govern…We set targets for ourselves even before the election was thrown to the court. (Our goal) was to have the senior White House staff chosen by December 15 and the candidates [for Cabinet positions] selected by Christmas time.” 

Marchick asked Johnson when George W. Bush began his presidential transition planning for the 2000 election and why he was picked as executive director of the transition. 

Johnson: “He (Bush) said…I want you to prepare a plan for what I do when I win the presidency. This was in June of 1999. So it was 16 months or so before the presidential election. I don’t think anybody’s started that early ever before or after.” 

“I was a known entity…and I had worked with the senior people in Austin. They knew that I was methodical, organized, systematic…and was focused entirely on the success of my 50-year plus friend.  I had a nickname among the (state) senators. My nickname was the icebox or the refrigerator…I was not Mr. hail-fellow-well-met. I was not somebody that was going to be trying to glad hand people and curry favor. I had one client and that was the governor.” 

Marchick asked how Johnson’experience as appointment’s director when Bush was the Texasgovernor helped him prepare for his role in staffing the new administration, particularly by employingthe practice of Bush meeting weekly with the personnel staff to discuss potential nominees rather than going through the White House chief of staff.  

Johnson: “It was very important. It’s the way we had done it in Austin…We had a system and he wanted it done exactly like that. And he realized he felt good about the time he spent on that…It was typically 25 to 30 people that he would review every week. And it took about 25 or 30 minutes. There was a real process: `What kind of person would we be looking for to fill this position? What do we want them to do? What kind of person is best prepared to do that? Do we want somebody who’s a manager? Do we want somebody who is a policy person? Did they have the basic human qualities, et cetera, et cetera.’ Then he’d say I agree and then we would move on.” 

Marchick noted that Johnson advised Bush in the summer of 2000 to pick his White House chief of staff well ahead of the election, and asked why that was important?  

Johnson: “It was key for the person who was going to be making the decisions and working with the president to pick the senior White House staff. If the chief of staff is asked to join the White House team on the day after Election Day, he or she is going to have to take a week or 10 days to put his game face on and you’re going to waste a week or 10 days. (Our goal was to identify) the chief of staff early so that he or she could be prepared to start working, to reach out to people and talk to people about coming in…as soon as the election is decided.” 

Marchick noted that historically, sub-Cabinet positions have been a point of contention betweenCabinet secretaries and the White House, and asked how the Bush team handled this issue. 

Johnson: “Everybody…advised us (not to) delegate to the Cabinet secretaries (regarding) the picking of all of their sub-Cabinet members…because it has never been successful. We were very clear with every Cabinet secretary that this would be collaborative. We had to both agree…That worked fabulously. I remember when I had my first meeting with (Secretary of State-designate) Colin Powell. I said, ‘Colin, I expect that 92% of the people you bring into the State Department are going to be people that you have worked with before and that will  be fine. But there are a lot of people we will identify for you to consider, and maybe there are people you don’t know who should be in certain positions.”