Exits and transitions can be graceful, or they can be messy, or they can fall somewhere in between. When they involve presidents, it can be a much bigger deal than, say, my exit from a retail establishment after a somewhat strained exchange with a clerk. I simply vote with my feet and go to a competitor. (Thankfully, that’s a rare occurrence during these covid-confining days.)
We are in a liminal period and will be for the next several weeks when exits and entrances will fall into the big-deal category before the inaugural on January 20. And presidents have not always done this dance well. The current guy is doing it horribly, of course, but you can go all the way back to our second chief executive, John Adams, who, with his wife, Abigail, abandoned the White House just before his successor, Thomas Jefferson, took the oath. Both were the first presidents of different political parties and tremendous rancor arose between these once-chummy Founding Fathers. Happily, they reconciled, gradually and out of office, with both dying on, of all days, July 4, 1826, inquiring to the end about the other’s health, a true presidential subject and predicate.
Adams’s son, John Quincy, and Andrew Jackson lost no love for each other during two bitter elections, the first decided for Adams in the House and engineered by Henry Clay in what has become known as the “corrupt bargain.” Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, then was defeated by William Henry Harrison. During an inaugural stemwinder delivered in a steady downpour, Harrison got so soaked that he died of pneumonia nine weeks later, allowing his running mate, the John Tyler of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, to occupy the White House.
James Buchanan, scorned by many historians as our most inept president (to date at least, but he’s being challenged for bottom-rung ranking by the current sulking, sullen occupant), dithered mightily in the four months before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 (ceremonies were held in March then), allowing more time for southern states to prepare for secession. Lincoln thus was greeted by the worst situation imaginable on Day 1. However, Lincoln’s assassination allowed Andrew Johnson, his polar opposite in temperament, talent, and vision, to become chief executive for a stormy term threatened by impeachment.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular tally to Samuel Tilden but caught a break in Congress, which awarded him contested electoral votes in exchange for a promise to end the occupation of the South. During his term in office, he was addressed as “His Fraudulency.” Fast forward to 1888 with Caldwell’s native son, Grover Cleveland, wining the popular vote for re-election but losing in the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland bided his time and bounced back four years later, effectively winning three terms but serving only two as our only non-consecutive president. In 1901, William McKinley’s assassination thrust Teddy Roosevelt into the executive office, but a decade later, TR decided that his own protégé, William Howard Taft, had botched his term at the top. Thus Roosevelt entered the 1912 race to make it a quadrilateral between himself (Bull Moose), Taft (Republican), Woodrow Wilson (Democrat), and Eugene V. Debs (socialist), splitting the turnout and gifting Wilson with victory. TR and Taft didn’t speak after that, but the rotund Ohioan snagged a wonderful consolation prize, being named chief justice of the Supreme Court, the job he said he wanted in the first place.
Again, pretty much of a lull until 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt trounced Herbert Hoover during the depths of the Great Depression. Hoover invited Roosevelt to tea and lectured him on ways to cure the national malaise with his owned failed prescriptions of Republican orthodoxy, balanced budgets, and volunteerism. FDR pointedly ignored the advice and, as the iconic photos show, the two men rode top-hatted together in glacial silence to the inaugural with Hoover staring grimly in the distance.
President Harry Truman, once an ardent admirer of General Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t speak much to Ike on inauguration day. Matter of fact, Ike wouldn’t even enter the Truman White House for pre-ceremony coffee after the two fell out over Korea policy, with Truman accusing the president-elect of grandstanding by promising to visit the battlefront. When JFK eked out a win over Richard Nixon with questionable Chicago precincts padding his vote total in 1960, Nixon quickly, and rather graciously, conceded. His later Watergate handoff to Gerald Ford went seamlessly and calmly, considering the fraught atmosphere of events. And even Gore v. Bush in 2000, with hanging chads and Supreme Court justices, resulted in Al Gore accepting the final rulings and results.
Although the history of presidential elections and transitions has been volatile, the current White House occupant has gone to unseemly and appalling lengths to try and subvert the entire process with a scorched-earth policy. But this should come as no surprise since his whole being and essence (to use the term loosely) has been shaped by two master tutors in the dark arts: His father, Fred Trump. a racist, contractor-stiffing, tenant-stifling developer of barely adequate apartments in New York City; and Roy Cohn, senator Joe McCarthy’s character-smearing hatchet man who went on to become Gotham’s go-to guy if a sleazy deal needed to be done. Both taught their disciple to double down in a parallel universe where truth, ethics, morality, charity, and decency are alien concepts … and they taught him all too well.
One disciple of this school who mercifully will leave the White House on January 20 is Stephen Miller, officially a counselor to the president but in reality the devil behind every indecent immigration and asylum initiative of the last term. I wrote about Miller for this publication two years ago, citing his cunning ability to find loopholes in laws and regulations to keep DACA Dreamers in limbo, separate immigrant children from their families, ban Muslims wholesale, and run the harshest detention facilities imaginable. Miller maintains a low profile, but when he has spoken, it’s been with the strident rhetoric of the most extreme nativism ever heard in this country. He helps implement the three Ds with relish: detain, dehumanize, and deport, and I’m sure he’s never met a wall he hasn’t liked.
Miller is just one of many bad actors and outright hacks staffing the White House and cabinet. But he continues to grate on me more than others. He’s Jewish and yet acts totally un-Jewish in terms of ethics, values, and compassion, so much so that his former West Coast rabbi called him out from the pulpit. A descendant of Eastern European immigrants on his mother’s side, Miller views new arrivals as the gravest threat to America. He represents the complete flipside to chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam.
Roy Cohn also was Jewish. During the 1980s he teamed up in a ruthless symbiosis with a certain young New York real estate developer to get deals done through vicious threats and lawsuits. Senator Joe McCarthy had trained him well, or vice versa. Cohn imparted all his worst character traits to the future president before he died at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Wanna bet the guy with the orange complexion and blonde combover pulls a John Adams on Joe Biden’s inauguration day?
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.