Journalist, political advisor discuss the history of U.S. presidential transitions

Earliest known photograph of the White House, circa January 1846, President James Polk’s first year in office. Half-plate daguerreotype, attributed to John Plumbe, Jr. (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Most Americans have heard the tales (likely exaggerated by his political opponents) of the near-riot that occurred when populist Andrew Jackson threw the White House open to all, high-class and low, for a post-inaugural reception in 1829. Food and drink were spilled, china and furniture smashed, and the new president himself is said to have been shoved up against a wall, reportedly escaping through a window. Only when the bowls of alcoholic punch were moved onto the lawn was the drunken crowd enticed to leave the building, it’s said. “The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” according to then-Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.

That memorable event happened long before someone came up with the notion of the Secret Service, of course; and nowadays tight security measures are enforced at presidential inaugural events. While the party that lost the election is never thrilled with the transition, in modern times it has typically proceeded fairly smoothly, with legislators affording the incoming president a brief “honeymoon” before becoming actively oppositional.

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That well-established tradition of giving the new guy a chance to prove himself seems to have died with the inauguration of Barack Obama, however, and most Democrats seem to be disturbed enough about the outcome of the 2016 election to be tearing off their kid gloves as well. The president-elect should probably consider himself fortunate if his move-in day at the White House is not permeated by a souvenir such as that left by Jackson for his successor at the end of his second term: the persistent stink of a 1,400-pound cheese wheel that the president had received as a gift and allowed to ripen in the East Room for several years before feeding it to the public.

The focus of the discussion on “Presidential Transition” to be presented this Saturday, January 14 at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum will be on more recent presidencies, beginning with FDR himself. But doubtless there will be plenty of illuminating (if perhaps not so messy or malodorous) stories to be told. The co-presenters are two political pundits with high media profiles: Mark McKinnon, former advisor to public officials ranging from Ann Richards to George W. Bush and co-creator/host of Showtime’s The Circus: The Greatest Political Show on Earth; and Alexander Heffner, journalist/essayist/educator and currently host of The Open Mind on PBS. As they consider presidential transitions from Roosevelt to Trump, just days before the 45th president’s inauguration. McKinnon and Heffner will discuss the historical transfer of power and the future of American politics.

If you’re concerned about that future, you won’t want to miss this event. The conversation begins at 7 p.m. at the Henry A. Wallace Center, located at 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9) in Hyde Park. Admission is free, but registration is required. Visit www.fdrlibrary.org to register; call (845) 486-7745 for additional information.

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