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From tantrums to home decor feuds: A history of awkward presidential transitions

John Quincy Adams (Samuele Wikipediano 1348/WikiCommons)
December 13, 2020

It may feel like a crazy notion in 2020, but presidential transitions weren’t always a period of constitutional crises, death threats and thirsty pleas for presidential pardons. But they haven’t always been smooth either.

The three-month period where the president-elect chooses their cabinet members and claims office space at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was once described by writer Martin Anderson as a time of “delicious chaos.” That deliciousness has included some very awkward car rides, expensive pranks and wallpaper demands.

Here’s a history of some of the more notable, and weird, presidential transitions in American history.

1828 — John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson

America’s 11th presidential election campaign was maybe the first to be marked by scandalous allegations and mudslinging, with both Adams and Jackson’s parties getting down in the dirt with personal attacks.

Beyond accusations of being a military tyrant and violent brawler, Jackson was charged with being morally unfit for office by Adams’ supporters during the campaign because of a decades-old unresolved divorce.

Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, had divorced her previous husband in 1793, or so she thought.

Captain Lewis Robards never actually filed for divorce after he and Rachel separated in 1790. Adams used this to portray Jackson as a bigamist, and his wife an adulteress, in the final throes of the campaign.

The scandalous accusations didn’t stick, and Jackson earned 56.4% of the popular vote.

Rachel died just days after Jackson’s election, before his inauguration in 1829, and never served as first lady, a role instead assumed by her niece, Emily Donelson.

Jackson later wrote that he believed that the attacks on her character from his political enemies hastened her death.

1868 — Andrew Johnson to Ulysses S. Grant

Inauguration Day in 1869 was frosty. Civil War hero, and 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant refused to sit next to his predecessor Andrew Johnson in the ceremonial carriage ride to the event.

In a childlike tantrum, Johnson took this insult to heart and then decided not to attend the ceremony at all.

Andrew Johnson was no stranger to embarrassment. After being sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in March 1865, his rambling speech was so ridiculed that he secluded himself in the White House to avoid public shaming.

His tenure in office, after the assassination of Lincoln, is widely considered to be a failure. Grant’s choice not to share a carriage with the recently impeached president, and his absence from the inauguration, cemented Johnson’s legacy as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

1932 — Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt

The 1932 transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt may have been the most contentious in history, before 2020’s horror show.

Though Hoover didn’t refer to his successor as “Sleepy Creepy Joe” or “Hiden Biden,” he did call him “a very ignorant, if well-meaning young man.” After a transition meeting in the White House in November 1932, he added “a chameleon on plaid” to his list of insults.

Hoover despised FDR’s planned New Deal, and after a lengthy public spat over policies, he sent a letter to Roosevelt in which he, maybe intentionally, misspelled his name “Roosvelt.” Roosevelt reportedly considered the letter “cheeky” and didn’t respond for 12 days.

After a shouting match over bank closures at afternoon tea in the White House the day before the inauguration, FDR said his son James wanted to “punch Hoover in the eye.”

On a cold and chilly inauguration day, however, Hoover did share a blanket with FDR on the carriage ride to the ceremony, in which Roosevelt would address the Great Depression with his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Hoover also showed some Trump-like delusion on how democracy works, and believed that when American citizens realized what a “madman” the New Dealer was they would “return him to the presidency.”

FDR went on to win a record three more presidential elections, before dying in office in 1945.

1980 — Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan

Nancy Reagan was so excited to redecorate the White House that she suggested the Carter family move out early so she could get her wallpaper up. This slight, directed at Rosalynn Carter, exemplified a frosty transition that writer Jonathan Alter described as “was one of the strangest and most dramatic in American history.”

By 1980, the ceremonial carriage ride shared by the outgoing and incoming presidents had been replaced by the most ’80s of fancy transport — the limousine.

During the short journey to the U.S. Capitol, Carter was reportedly deep in thought about the plight of Iranian hostages from the ongoing crisis in Tehran. Reagan, however, spent the journey telling Hollywood anecdotes that Carter characterized as “remarkably pointless.” When both men emerged from the limousine at the National Mall, Carter asked an aide incredulously, “Who is Jack Warner?”

2000 — Bill Clinton to George W. Bush

The turn of the millennium saw one of the closest and most disputed elections in United States history.

After a month of legal battles resulting in the highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision Bush v. Gore, which ended the recount marginally in the Texas governor’s favor, Bush was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2001.

The bitterness and controversy resulted in some schoolboy-esque revenge from Bill Clinton’s outgoing staff. Bush’s team found the White House looking more like a frat house than the most revered building in America.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found “damage, theft, vandalism and pranks” in the White House complex. The agency put the cost at about $14,000, including $4,850 to replace computer keyboards that had had their w’s removed.

Glue was reportedly smeared on desk drawers; messages disparaging President Bush were left on signs and in telephone voicemail and a few of the messages included “profane or obscene language.”

A Secret Service report also documented the theft of a 12-inch-wide presidential seal from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

After interviewing more than 100 government employees, the accounting office were not able to establish who was responsible for the damage.

2016 — Barack Obama to Donald J. Trump

There aren’t many more awkward presidential transition moments than the press-facing meeting in the White House between Donald Trump and Barack Obama on Nov. 10, 2016.

Trump’s history of insulting the first Black U.S. president was long and nasty, from questioning his birth country, to calling him “the founder of ISIS,” and the “most ignorant president in our history.”

For his part, Obama called Trump “unfit” and “woefully unprepared” for the presidency. It was later revealed that he had even told VP nominee Tim Kaine that a “fascist” may be moving into the White House.

The transition meeting ended with Obama tapping Trump on the arm after informing the press there would be no questions, telling the incoming president, “Always a good rule, don’t answer any questions when they all start yelling.”

The inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, was devoid of personal hostilities, however. In his address, Trump remarked, “We are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.”

Trump has not yet confirmed whether he will or will not attend his successor’s inauguration, and he may never concede the election. Regardless, the 2020 presidential transition period will end at noon on Jan. 20, 2021, when Joe Biden assumes the office, as 45 have before him.


(c) 2020 SFGate

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