The Magazine

Slouching Toward Washington

The lurid foolishness of the Transition.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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You may have noticed that some presidential Transitions are more equal than others.

Here is my theory: When a Democrat is succeeded by a Republican in the White House, it is seen as a civic regression, the triumph of dirty politics over clean statesmanship (see Willie Horton, the October Surprise, Lee Atwater, etc.). But when a Democrat replaces a Republican, it's a national rebirth, a celebration of renewal and the natural order of things.

An expatriate Briton, now deceased, liked to tell the story of dining one evening in early 1969, on the eve of Richard Nixon's first inaugural, at the Rive Gauche, a fashionable Georgetown restaurant favored by Jackie Kennedy and friends, long since gone. As their meal progressed, he and his companion observed that the place was swiftly filling up with people they didn't know, or even recognize, total strangers. And then it hit them: The Republicans had arrived!

Of course, this mixture of alarm and condescension--Tip O'Neill to Ronald Reagan: "You're in the big leagues now" (1981)--is very different from the tone currently surrounding Barack Obama, or the arrival of Bill Clinton--"Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure," the Washington Post (1992)--a decade-and-a-half ago. Certainly as far as the media are concerned, a Democrat-to-Republican Transition is an ominous thing, as the black clouds and killer insects descend on the nation's capital; a Republican-to-Democrat Transition, by contrast, is a tribute to life, an Ode to Joy on the Mighty Wurlitzer of political Washington.

Certainly the Obama Transition has made for painful reading in some quarters--the heroic imagery, the weepy essays, the learned predictions and confident visions, the bad music and fawning profiles--but it is not as though we haven't endured all this before. Remember "The Conversation," the lifelong bull session between and among Bill and Hillary Clinton and their far-flung, high-octane friends, all of whom were now hurtling toward the cabinet, or the Supreme Court or, at the very least, a Renaissance Weekend?

In fact, the origins of heroic Transition are earlier still. Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency was so catastrophic that, in retrospect, we tend to forget the circumstances under which he took office in 1976-77. After eight years of Republican rule, featuring the dead weight of the Vietnam war, the oil embargo, and the Watergate scandal, it was, so far as the press was concerned, as if a great menacing army had besieged the body politic since Nixon's election and been thrown back, at long last, into retreat, perhaps forever.

Yet Barack Obama is not the first presidential aspirant to have written a self-aggrandizing memoir (see Why Not the Best? by Jimmy Carter) and, as I write, I have before me my cherished edition of The Miracle of Jimmy Carter by Howard Norton and Bob Slosser ("Here is Jimmy Carter--man of faith and politics--as seen by two veteran newsmen").

Before the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter Transition, the ten-week interval between election and inauguration was a relatively casual affair, featuring farewell interviews for the outgoing team, extended postelection vacations for the winners, and a steady, reassuring drip-drip-drip of senior appointments.

Carter and his team institutionalized the process. Indeed, it was during this time that the term "transition" gained widespread currency, was frequently capitalized ("he's with Transition"), and occupied extensive office space in downtown Washington. Now it's an industry unto itself, with a federal budget, official czars (John Podesta for Obama), designated jobs ("she's in charge of Transition for HUD"), and even academic parasites, such as Professor Paul C. Light of New York University, whose specialty is Transition.

Like the current awakening, the Carter Transition had cultural, as well as political, significance. I possess a 1977 print, mounted and framed, by an artist named Don Northcutt, of Billy Carter's shabby gas station in Plains, Georgia. I retain it as a talisman of media coverage of incoming presidents. Before he was a hopeless alcoholic and public embarrassment, Billy Carter was seen in the press as a wise fool, the fun-loving flip side of his sober brother Jimmy, whose connection to the common people was celebrated (by CBS's Eric Sevareid, among others) by proximity to Billy and other rustic members of the Carter family.