Must Presidential Transitions End with Sabotaged White House Keyboards?

George W. Bush takes the oath of office in January 2001. Clinton staffers reportedly removed the "W" keys from White House keyboards before leaving. George W. Bush takes the oath of office in January 2001. Clinton staffers reportedly removed the "W" keys from White House keyboards before leaving. Doug Mills/AP file photo

Among the array of nonprofits shepherding the 2016-2017 presidential transition, the White House Transition Project probably enjoys the best documentation and the most ongoing contact with veterans of past Washington changeovers.

The nonpartisan project to smooth the presidential transition and the presidential appointments process --led by Towson University political scientist and author Martha Joynt Kumar--created an atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation at a Thursday lunch peopled with battle-scarred alumni of transitions from the Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and even the Eisenhower administrations.

A transition, noted David Eagles, director of presidential transitions at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, “is like an epic corporate takeover, but the incoming company does no due diligence and 4,000 of your top employees quit on the same day.”

The reluctance of the current White House and the General Services Administration (the lead transition agency) to go public with plans leaves the visible role to the good-government groups, which “are very cooperative,” said Dan Blair, president of the National Academy of Public Administration.

The luncheon convened by the White House Historical Association—with whom Kumar also works—showcased the Transition Project’s uniquely focused efforts “to help people coming to the White House learn how their office functions and how the transition operates, along with the opportunities and hazards,” Kumar said.

The project is also a repository of transition-related research, books, interviews with White House office chiefs dating to the Nixon administration, and a collection of White House office organization charts dating to the Carter years.

With 18 scholars and a 35-member “participatory board,” the Transition Project recently tapped specialists to research the roles of the vice president’s office, the legislative affairs office and the First Lady’s office, Kumar announced. Brad Patterson, a personnel officer under President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, plans a paper on the somewhat secretive process for setting the White House budget.

Other coming studies will address presidential appointments and how past presidents spent their time, based on daily diaries at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Kumar, whose 2015 book “Beyond the Oath” chronicled the 2008-2009 transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, reminded the audience at Washington’s Metropolitan Club that Bush White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten reached out to both Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama on June 7, 2008, the day Hillary Clinton dropped her primary run against Obama.

Bolten asked each of the opponents to appoint liaisons to come to the White House. Obama  ended up submitting 150-200 likely staff names to get a head start on security clearances, Kumar said. Bolten arranged for software to be purchased to log an expected 300,000 resumes, and assigned memoranda of understanding for 26 agency transition review teams.

Historically, Kumar said, the 2009 Inauguration marked the first time bipartisan transition planning made a clear difference. “The papers and discussions were immediately fruitful” because National Security Council teams from both the outgoing and incoming administrations had already met and were able to handle the unexpected threat—which never materialized—of a bomb attack on the Inaugural ceremony by a Somali terrorist group.

The 9/11 attacks, transition students frequently note, drove home the need for intra-party cooperation.

The pace of change has also accelerated, as measured by exponential rises in the number of executive orders and memos issued by more recent presidents in their first 100 days. In contrast to the Eisenhower days, Kumar said, modern administrations must take over “immediately—the days when you could sit back and look things over are gone.”

That probably started with the Inauguration of President Reagan, she said, who while still on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20 issued a statement instructing agencies to halt hiring and cease redecorating offices “to show he had a budget and would start cutting,” she said.

But the George W. Bush White House attempted to prevent its agencies from stacking up a last-minute pile of regulations—as the departing Clinton administration had done eight years earlier. A regulatory schedule was drawn up, but it was ignored by Cabinet secretaries, Kumar learned.

From the audience, Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush who worked on several presidential transitions, described the tense six weeks during the 2000 election recount when, with GSA unable to officially provide Bush’s team with office space, made it necessary for the campaign to raise private money for offices in Arlington, Va., for “shadow transition operations.”

Ann Stock, social secretary at the Clinton White House under Clinton who also helped First Lady Michelle Obama, described the “very personal, very private” process in which the first family “makes a house a home.”

Fred Ryan, who worked with Reagan’s transition to private life and is now publisher of The Washington Post, recalled a snafu in which phone lines to Reagan's new office in California in 1989 got crossed. Reagan, who showed up days earlier than expected in his new office to begin life as an ex-president, went into his office and a few hours later gave Ryan a list of people he wanted to see. None of the names was familiar, Ryan said. It turned out they were simply a list of people who had called asking to speak to the former president and, thanks to the crossed wires, actually got through to him.

Several veterans of tense transitions weighed in on the oft-told tale of the 2000-01 transition during which departing Clinton staffers were reported to have removed the “W” keys from the White House keyboards being inherited by employees of George W. Bush. When she moved in on Jan. 20, McBride said, she recalled no sabotaged keyboards but did encounter some messy offices and the empty hallways filled with trash and boxes from the departing employees. Sharon Fawcett, the retired assistant archivist for presidential libraries at the National Archives, told later investigators she said couldn’t account for any missing W keys, but could account for missing hard drives—which were taken by her agency according to records law.

Kumar said the keyboard story appeared to be “overblown,” with a Government Accountability Office probe having found some problems but “nothing organized.” Problems included a few broken pieces of furniture and strewn pizza boxes that a janitor failed to remove. So many departing White House employees leave with doorknobs, she said, the former White House historian told her there’s a regular vendor in Richmond who resupplies them.

The best way to avoid such partisan mischief, George Bush’s personnel director Clay Johnson once told Kumar, “is to have adults there at the end.” 

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