My grandfather, Harry S. Truman, initiated the protocols for the peaceful transfer of presidential power as we know them today. In 1952, he invited President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower to send over his cabinet and staff so they could kick the tires, as it were — be briefed by their predecessors, attend meetings, try out the office chairs.
“New cabinet members often have trouble taking over,” Grandpa wrote. “But being briefed as they were, and being allowed to sit with the members of my cabinet and seeing what their functions were, Eisenhower’s people didn’t have any trouble. It was the first time in the history of the country that these things had ever been done, and it was the most orderly turnover in the history of the White House.”
Grandpa wanted Ike to be able to hit the ground running, without suffering a fate like his own. When Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Grandpa ascended to the presidency knowing virtually nothing about how the White House had been running things.
Presidential transitions have not always been smooth or polite. John Adams sneaked out of the White House in the dead of night, Grandpa wrote, “so he wouldn’t have to make a turnover to Thomas Jefferson, because he didn’t like Jefferson and was jealous of him, as well. ...”
Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, waged such a vicious campaign in 1828 against Grandpa’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson, that Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a sensitive woman who hated politics, died as a result of stress before her husband’s inauguration.
Herbert Hoover considered his successor, FDR, to be ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the presidency and initially refused to be photographed with him.
Despite the smooth Truman-Eisenhower transition, Grandpa’s relationship with the president-elect was not good. It started well. In fact, when Gen. Eisenhower had returned from World War II, Grandpa liked him so much he offered to help him win the presidency.
Eisenhower politely declined and went on to serve as chief of staff of the Army, supreme allied commander in Europe and president of Columbia University, during which time he and Grandpa got along just fine. But when Ike decided to run for president as a Republican in 1952, things took a downward turn.
My wife, Polly, and I are friends with two of Eisenhower’s granddaughters, Susan and Mary Jean, so I’m careful about how one-sidedly I describe the rift that developed between our forebears. Suffice to say that by the 1953 inauguration, they had exchanged barbs and insults, although politely by today’s standards, and were no more than civil when forced to appear together in public. On the ride from the White House to the Capitol, they barely spoke.
Yet the transition was, as Grandpa said, a most orderly turnover, thereby ensuring continuity. In the telegram to Eisenhower inviting him and his Cabinet to the White House, Grandpa wrote:
“I know you will agree with me that there ought to be an orderly transfer of the business of the executive branch of the government to the new administration, particularly in view of the international dangers and problems that confront the country and the whole free world. I invite you, therefore, to meet with me in the White House at your earliest convenience to discuss the problem of this transition, so that it may be clear to all the world that this nation is united in its struggle for freedom and peace.”
Clifton Truman Daniel is honorary chairman of the Truman Library Institute and secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation. He currently portrays his grandfather onstage in the one-man show, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” He wrote this commentary for the Chicago Tribune (TNS).