The Replacements

January 21, 2009 Topics: Society Regions: Americas

The Replacements

Mini Teaser: Every president faces the daunting task of putting together a team that can lead America while transitioning to the role of leader of the free world. Given the way the new administration’s cabinet is shaping up and the heap of global crises, Obama

by Author(s): Ernest R. May

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.

Entirely different in character were memoranda prepared for Kennedy in the same year by the great presidential scholar Richard Neustadt. Long known only by reputation or from snippets in works such as Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days, these memoranda were finally published in 2000 by the American Enterprise Institute as Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt. Though Neustadt offered lively detail on past presidents, particularly FDR and Truman, all his words were chosen to highlight the pros and cons of choices he knew Kennedy to be mulling.

Commenting to Kennedy, "You are the only person you can count on to be thinking about what helps you," Neustadt described FDR's practices in terms exactly matching what he knew to be Kennedy's natural preferences. FDR, he wrote,

had a strong sense of a cardinal fact in government: That Presidents don't act on policies, programs, or personnel in the abstract; they act in the concrete as they meet deadlines. . . . He also had a strong sense of another fact in government: That persons close to Presidents are under constant pressure-and temptation-to go into business for themselves. . . .

Accordingly, he gave a minimum of fixed assignments to the members of his personal staff.

Of the two models provided by Henry and Neustadt, the former has been the one most often and most successfully imitated. Steinberg and Campbell's Difficult Transitions, the newest entry, has an appendix summarizing more than two-dozen books and articles published since 1960 on transition problems and approaches. Most are straightforward histories or reminiscences by transition veterans. None matches Neustadt, for, as Charles Jones writes in his introduction to the collected Neustadt memoranda, Neustadt in 1960 was a "governing insider." Even Neustadt, when asked for counsel by later presidents-in-waiting, could respond only as a "contemplative outsider." And that is the best description for most writers who have tried not only to report the history but to say what it might mean in practice.

There is one major exception. In 1968 Henry Kissinger was a member of a Harvard study group that prepared memoranda for Richard Nixon were he to be elected. The chair was Professor Philip Areeda of Harvard Law School, and the memoranda can be found among his papers in the school's archives. When surprised after the election by being named Nixon's national-security adviser, Kissinger became able not only to offer advice but to put in practice recommendations that Nixon accepted. He became in the very fullest sense a "governing insider."

Now, in the authors of Difficult Transitions, we have writers who combine, as Neustadt did, both academic understanding of the presidency and high-level practical experience. (Neustadt had been a high-level White House aide to Truman.) Kurt Campbell, after teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School, became a Washington think-tank manager. He now heads the recently created Center for a New American Security and is the executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group. He served on the National Security Council staff and, under Clinton, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense dealing with East Asia and the Pacific. James Steinberg, a lawyer by training, is the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. After earlier experience on Capitol Hill, he served from 1996 to 2000 as Clinton's deputy national-security adviser, working under Sandy Berger.

Though Steinberg and Campbell were both linked to Senator Barack Obama's campaign and figured in short lists of possible high-level Obama appointees from the start, they write, perhaps inevitably, as "contemplative outsiders." They began the book before either party had chosen a nominee. Prepublication page proofs left open the possibility that the addressee might be John McCain. Difficult Transitions thus falls into the class of works by "contemplative outsiders" about which Neustadt, writing in retrospect about his own memoranda, expressed special reservations. Not knowing whether a piece of advice matched the needs of the advisee, Neustadt wrote, "has been characteristic of all transition studies that purport to advise nominees of both major political parties."

Still, Difficult Transitions stands high above the two-dozen studies it cites as forerunners. Its language is lively, often clever. It begins with stories almost certain to arrest the attention of persons around a president-elect. Illustrating the reticence that seems to come over almost all successful presidential candidates, Campbell and Steinberg note that Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national-security adviser, were both slow to appreciate that they had actually been offered jobs. Kissinger said as much to Attorney General John Mitchell, who exclaimed of Nixon, "Oh, Jesus Christ, he has screwed it up again."

Regarding national-security affairs, which is their forte and chief focus, Campbell and Steinberg are careful to underline respects in which past experience may be an unreliable or at least misleading guide. They highlight distinctive features of the current landscape: increasing globalization; news media constantly becoming more competitive and more intrusive; poisonous partisanship (overlapping the previous feature, as is easily proved by flicking back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC); and systemic blockage in the appointments process.

Campbell and Steinberg offer many wise but not particularly original comments on how past presidents-elect have dealt with promises made during the campaign. They advise against promises too precise for later fuzzing up. They cite as a model Eisenhower's stance on the Korean War. He did not promise to end it, as some hoped, or to step up the fighting, as others advocated. He simply said he would go to Korea, and that proved enough.

It being too late for President Obama to retract statements that come closer to real commitments, Campbell and Steinberg stop short of saying anything except that choices may have to be made between consistency and realism. They do not cite as another possible example Louisiana's infamous governor of the 1930s, Huey Long, who, having promised no new taxes, called for large tax hikes, and, when asked by an aide how the contradiction was to be justified, said, "Tell them I lied."

Campbell and Steinberg describe how, in what order and on what schedule past presidents-elect have chosen and announced appointments to their staff, or cabinet or subcabinet. They say that individuals in the running are likely to be of four types: "loyalists," "all-stars," "worthies" and "holdovers." Their personal preference seems to run to people of the first and last types. They write:

On the whole, decisions to appoint all-stars or worthies without significant previous personal connection to the candidates has, with the important exception of Kissinger, proved problematic. At best, they have been marginalized or ignored in the decisionmaking process (Colin Powell, Les Aspin, James Woolsey, Cyrus Vance, William Rogers); at worst, they have caused significant disruption as a result of not being seen as team players (Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld).

Suggesting at least faintly that they expected an Obama victory, Campbell and Steinberg say that the model should be a good basketball team, taking account both of each individual's talent and of their ability to work together.

Difficult Transitions ends with twenty recommendations. Some, it has to be said, fail to pass the test of having meaning only if the exact opposite also has meaning. Number one, for example, is "be judicious when making promises." Can one imagine an exhortation to make injudicious promises? The same objection holds for the injunction to "defer decisions, when possible, until confident of the facts," though a case can be made for applying this rule only if the decision seems important. Several have meaning only if one understands them as recommending the next administration establish it is different from that of George W. Bush. These include: "Think carefully before reversing predecessors' policy decisions"; "Try to revive the principle of leaving partisanship ‘at the water's edge'"; "Engage Congress early and often"; and "Prepare to interact and engage with the media, instead of expecting to control the message at all times."

Essay Types: Book Review