Kurt M. Campbell and James B. Steinberg, Difficult Transitions: Foreign
Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 204 pp., $26.95.
Richard E. Neustadt, Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt, edited by Charles O. Jones (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2000), 250 pp., $25.00.
Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 368 pp., $27.95.
A SUCCESSFUL presidential candidate has about eleven weeks to prepare for actually becoming president. This is when presidents-some at least-visibly struggle to learn from history, hoping to avoid repeating mistakes and to copy past successes.
The results have usually been mixed. Not paying much attention to earlier practices contributed to Jimmy Carter's stumbling through most of his single term. It marred the first terms of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But, then again, trying hard to take account of past failures and successes did not protect Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan from missteps that they later rued. (Among other things, all three concluded that they had appointed the wrong person as secretary of state-and for the wrong reasons.)
In recent decades, scholars and others of a studious bent have offered help. Two contrasting examples date back to 1960. One came from the Brookings Institution, which commissioned Laurin L. Henry to describe past handoffs from William Howard Taft to Woodrow Wilson in 1912-13 to Truman to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952-53. Heavy in every sense (755 pages), Henry's book, Presidential Transitions, was-and remains-an indispensable reference work, but it leaves it to the reader to search out any practical applications of its stories.