By Rich Acritelli
“Your success is now our country’s success.”
George H.W. Bush (R) who lost a hotly contested election to Bill Clinton (D) in 1992, passed on this message to the incoming president. Bush lost a difficult campaign to Clinton, but wanted a smooth transition of power to the newly elected leader. Both men were opponents who were completely opposite from each other. Bush was a fighter pilot who flew off aircraft carriers in the Pacific during World War II, and Clinton was decisively against the United States involvement during the Vietnam War. Bush was a conservative president and vice president living in Texas who served under Ronald Reagan (R) for eight years, and Clinton was a liberal governor from Arkansas. While their political views often clashed, since both men left office, they have grown to become good friends. These one-time executive adversaries are immensely close, and Clinton now regards Bush’s wife, Barbara, as a second mother.
Little-known Vice President Harry S. Truman (D) from Missouri gained power after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) April 12, 1945. Right away Truman felt the immense burden of responsibility after learning about the tragic death of Roosevelt. When he asked the late president’s wife, Eleanor, what he could do to help her family, she asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
Truman presided over the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, a fledgling postwar economy, and a difficult re-election against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey (R). Although Truman is remembered as an extremely capable president, he had the difficulties of serving after the trusted four-term leadership of Roosevelt and before the “General of the Armies” Dwight D. Eisenhower (R).
During World War II, Eisenhower was rapidly promoted and given an immense amount of authority by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, a highly regarded officer who became the architect of victory against Hitler in Europe. Outside of attaining a stellar record in the Army, Eisenhower’s only key blemish was his World War II affair with his driver Kay Summersby. After the war, he approached Marshall about the desire to divorce his wife and bring back his love interest to the U.S. Marshall took a heavy interest within Eisenhower’s career and he was seen as a second father to the future president. When the disciplinarian-minded Marshall learned that Eisenhower wanted to send for Summersby, he told his subordinate that he would run him “out of the Army” and make it impossible for him ever to “draw a peaceful breath.”
Marshall later wrote a scathing report about Eisenhower’s infidelities that was destroyed by Truman before he left office. Although Eisenhower and Truman did not have a warm relationship, Eisenhower stressed to Truman he could not believe how relentless the media was about his relationship with Summersby. Truman bluntly responded that if these were the only attacks against him by reporters, Eisenhower was immensely fortunate. Before he left office, Truman told the new leader he did not shred Marshall’s letter about Summersby to personally protect Eisenhower. His outgoing priority was to preserve the honor of the executive branch and its new leader, President-elect Eisenhower.
Currently, some of the cabinet nominations of President-elect Donald Trump (R) are facing scrutiny by Congress. Many previous presidents have endured political obstacles during this process. Clinton found it a chore to fulfill the attorney general position, as the first two candidates withdrew from being considered. George H.W. Bush watched as John Tower, his pick for secretary of defense in 1989 was not approved for the job. Personal allegations apart, the U.S. Senate did not like Tower’s connections to the national defense industry because they said it was a conflict of interest that could not be overlooked. It was the first time in 30 years the Senate refused to confirm a presidential cabinet appointment.
In 1980, Reagan faced scrutiny over Jackie Presser, later president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who was believed to have ties to organized crime. Presser was a labor adviser to Reagan’s transitional team, and the Democrats were outraged by possible connections of corruption. The choice of Jimmy Carter (D) for the Central Intelligence Agency, Theodore Sorensen, withdrew his own name in 1977 due to the onslaught of resentment waged against the former World War II conscientious objector. Many members of the intelligence and military communities were concerned that he was too much of an outsider who wanted to reform the CIA’s overall mission of gathering vital information during the height of the Cold War.
Historically speaking, the time between the election and inauguration, a period of uncertainty, has impacted every leader since the days of George Washington. These triumphs and failures are realistic issues that must be accepted by our leaders before they enter the Oval Office. This will be no different for Trump when he is sworn in Friday in front of the nation by Chief Justice John Roberts during an inauguration that will be watched by the world.
Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. Research for this story was contributed by the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society.