Hess Pens Transition Guidebook

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:32pm

For every president-elect who wished there was a how-to guide for the transition period, Stephen Hess has written a book just for them.

With President-elect Barack Obama making preparations for the Jan. 20 presidential handover, politicians, academics, analysts, journalists and interest groups are all putting in their two cents on whom Obama should appoint to his administration. Among those dispensing advice is Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who has served in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. He has written a book detailing every step of a presidential transition in a way a president-elect might benefit most.

Hess’ book, “What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect,” isn’t the usual scholarly tome one might expect. Alongside pie charts and diagrams, there are humorous cartoons and even fill-in-the-blank worksheets meant for the incoming president.

“When we start this exercise, as you will see, the book is directed to the president-elect. You are, of course, welcome to join the conversation,” Hess tells readers in the prologue.

It’s a short book with each of the six chapters focusing on a specific topic incoming presidents must consider during transition periods. There is of course one chapter titled “White House,” about picking the chief of staff, personnel director, press secretary and speechwriters. It also includes floor plans of the West Wing.

“The White House Office is one place in the government where you can mold the shape, size, and units to meet your specific needs,” Hess writes.

This is a relatively common opinion among insiders. Like Hess, Frank Sesno, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University, says Obama’s Cabinet must be shaped to suit him.

“He’s going to have to set up a management structure inside the White House that reflects his values, accommodates his personality, works to his strengths, minimizing his weaknesses,” Sesno said.

But political experts disagree on a larger scope of what is unique about Obama’s transition and presidency. George Mason University public policy professor James Pfiffner is unsure whether Obama’s transition or presidency is unique so far.

“It’s not clear, aside from the election of Obama and so forth, that it’s really different from others,” Pfiffner said.

Pfiffner said one significant difference is that the Obama transition period, at least so far, isn’t disorganized the way it was for former President Bill Clinton.

“The Clinton administration, it was not tightly organized,” Pfiffner said. “A lot of it was out in Little Rock in Arkansas, and that caused some problems.”

On the other hand, Hess says Obama’s organization and intelligence are what makes this transition unique.

“He’s simply very smart,” Hess said. “But Bill Clinton was smart, what Obama has that Clinton didn’t have is discipline, so he’s very smart and very disciplined and he has an interesting résumé — I think it was perfect that he was here for part of just one term in the Senate. That’s all you need to be president.”

Throughout the book Hess refers to the chief of staff as the “primus inter pares,” which is Latin for “first among equals.” In the “White House” chapter, Hess sheds some light on picking a chief of staff. “The PIP is your fail-safe mechanism, the last redoubt between you and a misstep. If the PIP does not know the location of all the traps that will be set for you in the capital, you are likely to get ensnared.”

Concerning the president-elect’s appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as chief of staff, Hess is cautiously optimistic.

“He’s ideal in that he’s tough, but you don’t have to be bare-knuckled to be tough,” Hess said in an interview. “And that he knows the executive branch and he knows the Congress, and the book shows the major thing is you’re guiding the president so he doesn’t fall in the major potholes along the way, to that degree I think he’s perfect. In temperament I still have a question mark.”

In a chapter called “Activities,” Hess goes further than appointments, writing about the significance of transition teams, of meeting with the sitting president, and of dealing with the White House press corps, emphasizing how to handle leaks.

“When I was on the White House staff in the closing years of the Eisenhower presidency, we had an informal rule: The president has the right to tell his story first — then the staff can pile on,” Hess writes.

One thing that Hess can’t seem to stress enough is being prepared — and being prepared to make mistakes.

“If you make a mistake and quickly issue a heartfelt mea culpa,” he writes, “it is possible that the media and the public will move on to the next story.”