Scholars help White House improve institutional memory

Scholars help White House improve institutional memory

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta recalls being jazzed his first day in the Clinton Administration-until he saw his workstation. There wasn't a single piece of paper on his desk, and not so much as a diagram telling him where the men's room was. There was a computer monitor and processor, but the monitor was blank and the processor had wires poking out of it-someone had removed the hard drive. This was no crime of vandalism. It was the law at work.

While the Constitution sets clear rules on how the country goes about electing a President, there has always been a haphazard quality to the transition. One reason is that both long-standing custom and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 dictate that almost all White House offices be swept clean of all records, including basic information that would help a new President get off to a good start.

"By law, there's no institutional memory," says political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson State University, the author of two books on White House operations. "A new Administration, especially when there's a change of party, begins without a written record compiled by the previous occupants. Those who have worked there almost uniformly describe this as a handicap."

The absence of a record can be an issue even in what ought to be the least partisan of transitions-the ascendancy of a Vice President to the Oval Office in midterm. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, Harry S. Truman's incoming staff lacked access to key information, including the fact that the United States was close to developing the atomic bomb. As Vice President, Truman had not known the weapon existed, and it was not until 13 days after he became President that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimpson informed him of the project.

"I felt," Truman explained of his sudden thrust into the Oval Office, "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

Even when the nation is at peace, the lack of a written record in the White House National Security Council is a continuing problem. "The new NSC staff spends months re-creating them or negotiating with the archivists to get access to them," says John Fortier, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. "There has to be a better way."

In other words, Podesta was hardly the first appointee to wonder about this process. Michael Jackson, who held a powerful post as the White House's Cabinet secretary, recalls a scramble for furniture on the first day of the Bush Administration more appropriate for the movie Animal House than the White House.

"The first day what they did is, they pulled out a lot of the furniture from the offices and into the halls, where there were piles of credenzas, desks, wing chairs," Jackson told Kumar. "The people who were smart and knew the drill got there early and went and just took stuff."

Commentator David Gergen, who has served in two Republican Administrations and one Democratic (Clinton's), maintains that this early confusion in a cleaned-out, clueless White House comes at a price for the new President-and the country. "The early months are so important because that's when you have the most authority," Gergen said. "But that's when you also have the least capacity for making the right decisions."

Other White House veterans assert that the lack of institutional memory helps explain why incoming Administrations seem to stubbornly repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, especially in their first days. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, for instance, all vowed during their campaigns to cut the size of the White House staff, but their efforts to follow through on this ill-considered promise produced results ranging from poor to disastrous.

"Cicero said that he who does not know history would forever remain a child," says David M. Abshire, who heads the Center for the Study of the Presidency and who assisted in the Reagan transition. "Believe it or not, some Presidents have done childish things."

But such scholars as Abshire and Kumar insist that this is hardly all presidential fault: Imagine a $1.8 trillion company-that's the approximate size of the federal budget-in which the corporate headquarters is vacated every four or eight years. Moreover, hardly any of the support staff stays on, all the files vanish, and the shareholders are given only two months' notice about the identity of the incoming CEO.

"The White House is not simply a spoil of victory," says former Carter White House aide Harrison Wellford, an attorney who now handles corporate mergers. "It's the nerve center of the greatest government in the world, and we ought to at least give it the same respect that you do when you take over a second-rate corporation."

A slew of presidential scholars and good-government organizations are spending this year trying to do just that. They have undertaken a series of projects designed to help the new President hit the ground running when he takes office on Jan. 22, 2001:

  • Abshire's Center for the Study of the Presidency is working on a special report intended to reach the President-elect on the day after the election. The package will include several case studies illustrating past Presidents' successes and failures in policy-making, and an analysis of "the art of presidential leadership."
  • The Heritage Foundation is undertaking a project called Mandate for Leadership 2000. Obviously, the conservative Heritage folks are pulling for Republican Gov. George W. Bush over Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Just as obviously, some of the Heritage material, such as a proposed federal spending blueprint, is geared for a GOP President. But Heritage is also in the midst of a bipartisan effort consisting of a series of seminars and publications designed to guide the next Administration. Later this year, Heritage plans to publish what it promises will be a nonpartisan report drawing on the accumulated wisdom of a cast of former White House aides, ranging from former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta to Reagan confidant and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver.
  • Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution has launched his Presidential Appointee Initiative with the goal of helping a new President get the best and the brightest Americans into his Administration. This project, funded to the tune of $3.6 million for three years by the Pew Charitable Trusts, will propose reforms that streamline and depoliticize the appointment and confirmation process. "The premise . . . is that effective governance is impossible if the nation's most talented citizens are reluctant to accept the President's call to government service," Light says.
  • At the American Enterprise Institute, Norman J. Ornstein has teamed with Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution on a wide-ranging three-year mission called Transition to Governing. Also funded by Pew, the $3.35 million project targets the "permanent campaign," which has made stars of political consultants while reducing policy-makers to slaves of the daily tracking polls.

In the works at AEI are two conferences; a published set of benchmarks by which to judge successful transitions; recommendations for improving the confirmation process; a book on the danger of the permanent campaign; and the publication of transition memos written by Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt for Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton. In addition, AEI intends to supplement Light's work by developing ideas for accelerating the appointment process, which took an average of two months in Kennedy's day but now consumes more than nine months.

One tool being created is a CD-ROM modeled on TurboTax software that consolidates all of the questions asked on the various government disclosure forms and in FBI background checks. "The purpose of it is to make it easy for nominees to complete the blizzard of paperwork they have to negotiate," says Terry Sullivan, the University of North Carolina political scientist overseeing the project. "One of the things we know from interviews Paul Light's organization has been conducting with these people is that they find all this paperwork to be odious and repetitious. It discourages some nominees. . . ."

Finally, there is the White House interview program, the brainchild of Martha Kumar and several of her fellow presidential scholars. Also funded by Pew, but at only $250,000 for three years, it may offer the biggest bang for the buck. Kumar has conducted nearly 75 in-depth interviews with former White House officials from seven key offices, including chief of staff and communications, going back as far as the Nixon Administration. "The idea of these interviews is to get into the workings of the White House," Kumar said, "and to pass along their insights to those who need it-when they need it most."

Her interviews will be made available, along with a 15-page analysis on the office in question, to those hired during the transition for positions such as White House chief of staff and press secretary. Next year, they will be turned over to the National Archives.

The scholars themselves are aware that the reports they are producing will compete with each other and with a thousand other demands on the new appointees' time. For that reason, there has been a good deal of cross-pollination of ideas and cooperation among the scholars, many of whom are being tapped for more than one of these projects. In the process, a loose consensus has formed among them, one that David Abshire puts succinctly: "The most important decision a President makes is whom he picks to make up that presidency."