• U.S.

The Presidency: Going Gently into the Night

8 minute read
Hugh Sidey

A piece of George Bush’s soul has been crushed. He will hide it behind his patrician grace in his season of defeat. Rejected by the American people, a life’s ambition cut short, a political finale cast in defeat — a heavy burden even for a man of Bush’s discipline. Yet this cruel ritual is the heart of democracy.

Like the office itself, the pain of an incumbent’s defeat has to be immense. A friend of Jimmy Carter’s watched him confront the fact he would not be re- elected in 1980 and said, “a part of him died.” Jerry Ford clung to his hope for victory into election night, but as always with good politicians there comes a moment when truth confronts them and they accept it. When Ohio slipped out of Ford’s grip on that fateful night in 1976, he got up from his chair in front of his television set and said, “That’s it.” Tears streamed down his face and that of Joe Garagiola, former baseball player and sports commentator, who had campaigned desperately for Ford in the final hours. The two old friends hugged each other in their silent despondency.

Later Rex Scouten, chief White House usher, remembers walking with Ford to his bedroom on that night, saying something about Ford’s long, distinguished public career and how it might be best for him to move on and think of himself. Ford looked at Scouten with a great hurt in his eyes. “I don’t believe so,” he said. None of them ever do.

There probably is no easy way for the loser to endure the transition of presidential power. He is faced with the exuberance of the winner, impatient to get into the White House. He is surrounded with the political disarray of his expiring Administration. By most measures, the change from Bush to Bill Clinton will be less traumatic than others. The anti-Bush tide was running for weeks. Only blind fanatics — and that does not include Bush — could see a good chance of redemption in the last campaign days.

The worst hours in presidential power shifts follow the unexpected episodes like the assassination of John Kennedy. On Air Force One bringing both Kennedy’s body and Lyndon Johnson, the new President, back to Washington, there played out a scene of anguish and exhilaration, a weird struggle contained in the hurtling fuselage. Devastating sorrow among the Kennedy people turned to a blind hatred against the statutory heirs to power. The Johnson group, though stunned by the death of Kennedy, could scarcely contain their satisfaction at gaining the office that had eluded them in the electoral process.

Back at the White House the most devastating images were those of the physical changes taking place inside the old building, like the pictures of the Kennedy rocking chairs piled on a furniture dolly being rushed out the side door even before Kennedy’s funeral was over. There was no choice. The White House staff perpetuated the heartbeat of American authority.

Richard Nixon made the final decision to yield the presidency, and the inevitability of his departure had been writ large for days. Still, the pain was intense. Not long before Nixon made that final wave from the door of his helicopter, Alexander Haig, then the White House chief of staff, met with a friend in the shadowy Map Room in the basement of the Mansion. “He will be dead within a year,” said Haig of Nixon, having witnessed an emotional wound beyond anything Haig the soldier had seen before.

Nixon recovered, as did Ford and Carter, though even today their disappointment lingers. Politicians know the risks of their game, but like soldiers in battle they all expect the other person to be laid low. Lyndon Johnson was renowned for a cast-iron political gut, but even he had a soft core. While he secretly decided not to run in 1968 rather than risk defeat, there is strong evidence that he never cleansed himself of despair. Being out of power may have hastened his death down at his ranch four years after leaving the White House.

Even in a programmed transition after eight years in office, there is a sadness and a frantic shifting of the complex internal gears of the White House, which must serve one man up to his departure on Inauguration Day, then welcome the newcomer a few hours later. At the end of that sunny, joyous day in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn in, Usher Gary Walters pulled down the U.S. flag that had flown over the White House and tucked it away; eight years later, he and the assembled staff gave it to the departing President. Even the Gipper choked up, and so did Walters and all the others. End of the Reagan home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Over in the working West Wing, Reagan had stoically stepped in for a last look around the Oval Office, perhaps the world’s most recognized symbol of political authority. Then he fished in his pocket, pulled out the code card for nuclear attack and asked huskily, “What do I do with this?” That Godlike hold over life and death vanished from his fingers and into a military aide’s hands and later to Bush’s pocket.

When an election decrees a new White House resident, the outgoing President and his governing team must continue to operate for another 10 weeks. That in turn dictates that the home must continue to be familiar, comfortable and functional. Family pictures stay on the walls and tables, favorite desserts are served up at night, fresh flowers placed at every turn. Then, when the First Family departs for the Capitol and the Inaugural, the resident staff and supplemental crews launch a furious assault. By the end of the great Inauguration parade, say around 5 p.m., the new President and his family enter the White House furnished and decorated in the private quarters to fit their style and taste. Inside, the staff must contemplate new habits, accommodate strange kids, house new dogs or cats, position new furniture and pictures and make sure that sadness yields to cheer, tears turn to smiles.

The greater burden in these days of passing the power will fall on Barbara Bush. The change in the business end of the White House is a stodgy ritual. The Clinton people don’t want to get entangled in the last days of Bush decision making, and so they will do little more than learn how to operate the machinery and scout the office space, then wait for the moment of truth when they can claim the desks and issue orders. But Barbara, wife and nester, must dismantle a home and shift a family. Walters and his crew by tradition will wait until the immediate pain of defeat subsides and the First Lady signals she is ready to make plans. Then the staff, renowned for its sensitivity, will feel their way into the new routine.

It took a White House servant three tries back when Harry Truman moved in to get the formula that Bess and Harry liked for their nightly old fashioned cocktail. The final solution: double the shot of bourbon. The flower arrangers went from Nancy Reagan’s lower, denser bouquets to airy sprays favored by Mrs. Bush. Pastry impresario Roland Mesnier boosted his cookie output when the Bushes arrived trailing various combinations of their eight (now 12) grandchildren. Walters, who is no cat lover, remembers being sent to Blair House in 1977 to bring Amy Carter’s cat, Misty Malarkey Ying Yang, over to its quarters in the White House. Walters got a firm but nervous grip on Misty, tenderly threaded his way through the amused crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue who were waiting for the Inauguration parade. Both Walters and Misty were relieved to get safely inside the White House. The cat loved the new home; Walters even grew to like Misty.

Now and then there is a bump or two in the changing of the presidential family. Legend has it that Lyndon Johnson asked French chef Rene Verdon, who had been installed by Jackie Kennedy, if he could cook Texan. “I don’t cook fried chicken, corn bread or barbecue,” said Verdon, who soon left to open a restaurant in San Francisco.

For the most part the bittersweet drama goes along without any lasting rancor. Peaceful change is what democracy is all about, and the people who play the political game despite their frayed feelings know the rules and respect them. On election night when Bush had conceded to Bill Clinton, and the White House in its weary sadness had dimmed and paused for a few hours, one could loiter on Pennsylvania Avenue and marvel anew at the magic in this old system of ours. No tanks guarded the White House gates. No troops cordoned the streets. The greatest political power on the face of the earth had been taken from one man and given to another, and it was done with only the riffle of an autumn breeze around the big house that George Washington built.

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