The Non-Handoff Handoff

Handoffs seem straightforward. Something moves from here to there, a point-to-point transaction that limits room for error. 

I recall getting instruction on making a good handoff for only one situation. That was in baseball. I was a shortstop teaming with the second baseman on double plays whereby the one who catches the ground ball flips it to the other, who steps on second base and throws to first, while the oncoming runner tries to bowl him over. My coach’s instruction was that when you catch the ground ball, immediately take it out of your glove and “show it” to your partner. 

It’s a small consideration but it helps ensure a smooth transition. It was one of many small things we learned—like when there’s a pause in the action don’t stand on the infield dirt but on the grass where it’s 10 degrees cooler. Those small things add up and no doubt contributed to our team’s dominating record. 

Likewise the handoff between presidential administrations improves its odds for success if both parties are transparent—the equivalent of showing the ball. 

The first presidential transition I recall noticing was in January 2001, when the outgoing Clinton administration gave way to George W. Bush. A story I read then in The New York Times—and I seem to remember it on page one, below the fold—claimed that the Clinton team had vandalized the White House offices on its way out, including removing the W’s (the incoming president’s middle initial) from keyboards. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described his reaction to reporters with a clever quip: “It would have been ‘Wow,’ but the ‘W’ was removed, so now it’s just ‘O.'”

A few months later these reports were shown to be at best an exaggeration—possibly a falsehood. The General Accounting Office reported as much as $14,000 in damages, but noted that some were the result of normal wear and tear, and that it couldn’t determine if the obvious pranks were more or less than occur in every presidential transition. (Who knew about that tradition?). Salon called it, “The White House vandal scandal that wasn’t.” Kind of like an alternative reality. This one pranked the national media into trashing the Clinton administration while delivering an opportunity for the Bushies to highlight that they had a different way of governing, sans the frat boy frolics. 

That incident foreshadowed the Bush administration’s modus operandi.  Just two years later, they perpetrated a reality that offered an alternative to U.S. intelligence findings, that Iraq had ties to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The claim helped the Bush team justify starting the war on Iraq. You probably know how that turned out. 

Donald Trump has taken alternative realities to new places, and like Bush he set the tone right out of the gate when his press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the Trump inauguration had the largest attendance ever, denying what was clear in photographs, that the Obama inauguration crowd was bigger. Such is Trump’s management style, demanding loyal and enthusiastic support of unsupportable alternative realities. 

Now 13 senators and 140 house representatives (at last count) say that when Congress meets tomorrow (Jan. 6), they will support the lame-duck president’s claims about election fraud by refusing to confirm the electoral votes that give President-Elect Joe Biden the election victory. 

How ever this objection gets resolved, the manner in which the presidential handoff has been jerked from its simple point-to-point moorings doesn’t bode well for the future of the Federal government nor for us, the people some in government seek to serve. 

Photo at the top of the page shows what was roughly Donald Trump’s view of the 58th presidential inauguration, a view that convinced him it was the largest inauguration crowd in history.

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