The electoral turmoil not only provided endless weeks of political theater. It also robbed Bush of the most important asset a new president has: a honeymoon with Congress, the press, and the American people. From the November 7 election, it took the courts 36 days to sort out the issues, and Gore conceded on day 37. If they concur on anything, presidential scholars agree that the first weeks of the transition are crucial to shaping a new presidency. If anything is clear about Bush’s transition, however, it’s that he had the right strategy to help him negotiate one of the most contentious election battles in American history.
Any new job or management assignment is tough, and putting together a presidency is one of the toughest. The president-elect needs to assemble a staff, choose a cabinet, frame the big issues, rough out a legislative agenda, and prepare a budget. Thousands of r sum s, from campaign workers and ordinary citizens, fall like a blizzard on staffers trying to find desks and computers. The days from early November until the inauguration on January 20 spin by with breathtaking speed, and the new president usually needs every second to be ready to govern. Jimmy Carter’s pollster, Patrick H. Caddell, said, “Most White Houses are lucky if they get the furniture in.” For Bush, five weeks evaporated in the protracted election battle. That cut his preparation time in half.
Tough transitions are legendary in Washington politics. It’s long been a tradition for the outgoing and incoming presidents to ride together to the Capitol for the inauguration ceremony, but relations between Dwight Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman were so frosty that Eisenhower refused even to get out of his car to greet Truman. The transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan was downright painful. Among other things, Nancy Reagan reportedly suggested that the Carters ought to move out a few weeks early so she could redecorate the White House before inauguration day.
It’s a tough job—even tougher in half the time. It’s tougher yet when pundits conclude that the battle over the presidency is likely to render the new president powerless, no matter what he does. Jim Cannon was a domestic policy adviser to President Gerald Ford, another president who came into office under a cloud. “No one in the public knew much who Ford was,” he told Washington Post columnist David Broder, but they were glad to get rid of Richard Nixon and welcomed Ford as an honest man. Ford had never been elected either vice president or president—Nixon appointed him vice president after Spiro Agnew had resigned—“but nobody ever questioned his legitimacy,” Cannon said. For Bush, however, “There will always be questions about the legitimacy of [his] victory.”