latimes.com: Frost is in the forecast for Bush, Clinton ride in limo
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- Certainly there have been transfers of power, even in this seat of constitutional comity, that have been nastier.
President-elect Ulysses S. Grant showed up late to the White House on his way to the Capitol on Inauguration Day 1869. President Andrew Johnson, long at odds with the general, told him to go to the ceremony alone and refused to attend his successor's swearing-in. In 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt rode together to the Capitol--and barely looked at each other.
But when President Clinton and President-elect George W. Bush walk out of the White House together shortly before noon on Saturday and ride side by side to the Capitol--their certain show of courtliness notwithstanding--the atmosphere within the limousine could easily rival the frosty Washington winter beyond the armored windows.
And the edge-and-attitude tenor of the transition did not just begin in Florida. The distaste with which Clinton seems to look on Bush came into the open in the aftermath of the recount of the presidential election in the Sunshine State. But nearly two years ago, in private discussions, he was speaking with a degree of barely disguised disdain for the man he dismissed as "W."
For three weeks after the denouement in Florida, Clinton was careful to avoid making any suggestion in public that would cast doubts on the legitimacy of Bush's presidency.
But in Chicago a week and a half ago, it slipped out: "The only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida," Clinton said to a partisan crowd in Chicago.
A senior White House aide was unapologetic. "He sort of let people know exactly what he was thinking. It's not much different from what a lot of people are thinking. But he was speaking a little too freely. For those of us who've been around him, it wasn't a surprise."
Asked two days later about Clinton's comment, Bush responded, the tartness of his words sweetened only momentarily by a short laugh and formal construction:
"He can say what he wants to say, but January the 20th I'll be honored to be sworn in as the president."
With that, Bush and Clinton allies dropped all but the veneer of civility, that thin layer already well worn. In all likelihood, it will return only briefly to drape the president and president-to-be as they ride to Capitol Hill at midday Saturday.
Will Clinton, the senior White House aide was asked, be able to conduct himself pleasantly enough during that ride?
"He will," the aide said. "He'll do what needs to be done. No one expects anything less than that."
Another senior White House aide, Press Secretary Jake Siewert, said that whatever differences Clinton has with Bush are built around policy and politics, not personality.
He pointed out that when the two met four weeks ago at the White House, they spent an hour longer than the 1 1/2 hours allotted. Siewert said Clinton recently remarked privately that he respects the seriousness with which Bush is approaching the management requirements of the job.
Still, there is the question, whimsical and unanswered for the moment, about the limousine itself--more specifically about its license plate. The District of Columbia tag on the presidential limousine bears the slogan "Taxation without representation." It is a historical phrase resurrected by the pro-statehood local government to underline its complaint that residents of the nation's capital lack voting representation in the House and Senate.
Clinton, a late convert to the cause, requested the specialty license plates a few weeks ago. But statehood for the District of Columbia is not atop Bush's list of priorities. Republicans generally balk at the idea, given the overwhelming advantage Democrats have among voters here and the likelihood it would add one Democrat to the House and two to the Senate.
So, for the ride back to the White House, will the new president or one of his minions take screwdriver and pliers to the bumpers and secure new tags with less revolutionary rhetoric? Maybe not that quick, but change they will. Bush told Associated Press in an interview Thursday that he does not want to use license plates to make "a political statement" and will replace the Clinton ones with special 2001 inaugural tags.
To put into perspective the demeanor of the departing and arriving presidents, consider the examples set by the previous father-son presidential team, John and John Quincy Adams. Neither attended their successors' inaugurations.
(George Herbert Walker Bush, his bitter reelection defeat still stinging, not only rode to the Capitol with his successor, Clinton, but will be there to see Clinton leave office. And he and his wife, Barbara, plan to spend the first night of the new Bush administration back at the White House.)
Dwight D. Eisenhower declined a cup of coffee with Harry S. Truman, his predecessor, in 1953--a far cry from the day when William Howard Taft turned the Oval Office over to Woodrow Wilson in 1913, having declared that he had been "unelected" by the people when he sought a second term, then returned after the inauguration with Wilson to attend festivities at the White House.
"This is pretty mild compared to the really bitter ones," said Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University professor who specializes in the presidency. "At least they're going to ride in the same car."
On the other hand, he said, Bush may have some grounds to be annoyed. "Clinton . . . scheduled his farewell address on the same evening that inaugural festivities begin," he said, referring to the president's speech Thursday as Bush partisans attended a celebratory concert at the Lincoln Memorial. "That seems gratuitous."
To be sure, there have been comments from both sides that some might consider gratuitous and suggestions that they might not end at noon Saturday.
With Clinton firing off executive orders and approving regulations at a feverish pace as his days in office dwindled, Ari Fleischer, who will be Bush's White House press secretary, said of the president: "He has been a busy beaver."
It was not a compliment to Clinton's work habits.
And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a farewell to reporters, said sweetly: "When you want comments about the next administration, please feel free to call."