The Awkward Interval

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To Grover Cleveland belongs the unique distinction of having been a presidential lame duck twice. Renominated but defeated for re-election in 1888, he managed to exit with reasonable grace as Benjamin Harrison occupied the White House. Four years later Cleveland was back, but his second term proved less successful than his first: he was buffeted by an economic panic, fights over the tariff, the Pullman strike, and the greenback issue. During the last two years of his term he found himself wedged between a Republican Congress and his own party, which was increasingly drawn to what Cleveland considered soft-money heresies. The final break with the Democrats came in 1896, when Bryan was nominated and Cleveland supported the Gold Democrat splinter group. Now politically isolated, Cleveland spent his final months freely exercising the veto power and striving unsuccessfully to cool the excitement over Cuba that eventually led to war with Spain.

Speaking literally, the biggest lame duck was the amply constructed William Howard Taft, whose renomination in 1912 split the Republican party and left Taft to run last in a three-way race, behind both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Taft’s conduct after his defeat contributed largely to his historical reputation for geniality. Before leaving the White House he made several good-tempered speeches, participated in an active social season, puttered with schemes for government reorganization and a budget system, and took an ocean voyage to inspect the Panama Canal. Congress had already gone Democratic in the mid-term elections and was content to mark time waiting for Wilson. The legislators ignored most of Taft’s modest recommendations, killed some of his administrative reforms, passed pork-barrel bills, and declined to confirm some 1,400 postmasters and other nominees to make sure that there would be plenty of jobs open for deserving Democrats.

Although by present standards it was still a simple government with simple problems, by the end of Taft’s term there was beginning to be concern about the waste of time in the old-fashioned system of presidential and congressional replacement. Taft also was dissatisfied with the prevailing custom that restricted communication between outgoing and incoming Presidents, especially if they were of different parties, to polite notes and conversation on inauguration eve concerning housekeeping in the executive mansion. Without fully revealing his purposes, Taft made several inquiries through intermediaries, and finally wrote to Wilson directly to invite him to confer at the White House in December, 1912. But Wilson, who had just taken a month’s vacation in Bermuda, now claimed to be too busy.

Shortly before Wilson’s inauguration an event occurred that demonstrated the dangers of both the leisurely transition schedule and the limited communication between outgoing and incoming administrations. In February, 1913, violent revolution broke out in Mexico; American lives were endangered, and there was clamor for U.S. intervention. Taft tried to wait it out and avoid commitments that his successor would have to live with, but the situation was volatile and he was not certain this stand could be maintained. On February 25, Secretary of War Henry Stimson publicly suggested that members of the future Wilson Cabinet come forward for conversations about the Mexican situation. However, Wilson refused to take the Mexican business seriously and was not ready to reveal his Cabinet selections; in fact, at that moment he had not even picked a Secretary of War.

Four years later, having tasted presidential responsibility and being deep in diplomatic maneuvers on the eve of World War I, Wilson grew concerned about the interregnum that would occur if he failed of re-election against Charles Evans Hughes in November, 1916. He put the lame-duck problem succinctly in a note to his Secretary of State: Four months would lapse before he [Hughes] could take charge of the affairs of the government, and during those four months I would be without such moral backing from the nation as would be necessary to steady and control our relations with other governments. I would be known to be the rejected, not the accredited, spokesman of the country; and yet the accredited spokesman would be without legal authority to speak for the nation. The direction of the foreign policy of the government would in effect have been taken out of my hands and yet its new definition would be impossible until March.

Wilson’s proposed solution to the problem reflected his study of British institutions. In order to turn over the government promptly to the people’s choice, he would appoint the President-elect as Secretary of State, and then both he and his Vice President would resign: Hughes would then succeed instantly to the Presidency under the existing law of succession.∗

∗ By the Presidential Succession Act of January 19, 1886 (repealed in 1947), Congress provided that, in case of the disqualification of both the President and Vice President, the Secretary of State should act as President. Next in the line of succession was the Secretary of the Treasury, and so on down the line of Cabinet members. By the act of July 18, 1947, the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate are put ahead of Cabinet members in the order of succession.

As it turned out, Wilson’s narrow victory made the scheme unnecessary. In 1920, however, it might well have been put into effect. Wilson’s administration was pinned down by a Republican Congress, the Senate had rejected the Versailles Treaty, and the election of Harding was certainly a rejection of much else that Wilson had stood for. But by this time Wilson was ill and embittered, and he made no effort to revive the resignation plan.