Fifty-two years ago this week, his term in the White House drawing to a sad close, President Lyndon B. Johnson gathered members of his Cabinet together and delivered a strong message.

“We are now approaching the last month of this administration,” he told them. “It is neither desirable nor equitable to bind the hands of the next administration in major program areas unless there is overriding necessity to do so. We should not needlessly foreclose the options of the new administration to initiate their own program changes. It would be particularly unfair to take actions now which must be implemented over a long period of time.”

Both Johnson, a Democrat, and his successor, Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, were ferocious partisan pugilists. They disliked each other and reviled each other’s motives and actions. Indeed, they had spent their lives in opposition to each other. Their enmity was as great as that of Donald J. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. And yet the transition transpired with hardly a hiccup.

The American presidential transition is an American political tradition.

But like so many traditions, the customs and folkways that governed the rhythms of Washington have been altered in the Trump years. The president still is litigating an election that was conducted more than a month ago, his administration is only reluctantly permitting Biden to get a grip on the reins of government, and the country is witnessing the most fraught presidential transition since Gerald R. Ford became president after the resignation of Nixon — or since Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Both those hurried transitions occurred after national tragedies.

Indeed, the peaceful transfer of power was a tradition that began in 1801, when John Adams gave way to his rival, Thomas Jefferson. Over the years there were bumps on the transition road, but no swerves off that road, until now.

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover tried to enlist his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his efforts to fight the Great Depression, but the New York governor did not want to be pulled into the Hoover universe and did not want to be tied by his predecessor’s policies. “It’s not my baby,” he said. The two met in the White House the day before the inauguration, which in those days was March 4, and Hoover asked his successor to support him in closing the nation’s banks. “Like hell I will!” Roosevelt replied, adding, “If you haven’t the guts to do it yourself, I’ll wait until I’m president to do it.” The 31st president didn’t, and the 32nd did.

Twenty years later, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower swung by the White House but did not join Harry Truman for coffee on Inauguration Day. Instead, he waited in the car for the president to join him for the ride to the Capitol. Not that Eisenhower relished that 16-block drive. He said he wondered “if I can stand sitting next to that guy.”

Even so, the transition in both cases was basically smooth.

For all the years-long tension between Nixon and Johnson — who was Senate majority leader when Nixon, as Eisenhower’s vice president, served as president of the Senate, and who was on the Kennedy ticket that defeated Nixon in 1960 — the transition between the two men was, in comparison to the 2020 spectacle, the very model of the peaceful transfer of power.

It began even before the election. Johnson appointed Charles Murphy — a onetime Truman speechwriter, the former administrator of the Civil Aeronautics Board and a veteran of the 1953 transition to Eisenhower and the 1961 transition to Kennedy — as his transition officer. “I concluded that if I did not make an attempt to set up a transition machinery myself,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, “that step would not be taken.”

But there was more. In a Pittsburgh meeting with Billy Graham before the election, Nixon told the prominent evangelist to convey a message to the president, saying that while the Republican ticket running against Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey might criticize administration policies, there would be no personal criticism of Johnson himself and, moreover, that if Nixon were elected, he wanted a warm relationship with his predecessor. Shortly thereafter, Murphy told the president that the Republican team had been informed “that while we’re not going to help Nixon get elected, if he should be elected, we will do our best to help him get off to a good start.”

Indeed, six days after the election, the Nixons joined the Johnsons at the White House. There was lunch, questions about policy, an offer for briefings for the Nixon Cabinet nominees and a couples’ tour of the White House living quarters. Nixon suggested later that he expected Johnson would consult with him on major matters. Johnson recoiled at that notion. “I could not allow the impression to stand that Mr. Nixon had become a kind of co-president,” he said.

The contretemps ended swiftly. Johnson made a presidential jet available to Nixon, and the president-elect’s advisers were given office space across the street from the White House — and access to the White House telephone switchboard and automobiles.

Two men of different parties, different outlooks and different personalities made the transition work — all despite the fact that Johnson knew that Nixon had been party to a disgraceful act of foreign-policy interference as Election Day drew near. Anna Chennault, the widow of World War II “Flying Tigers” hero Claire Chennault, had urged South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu to stay away from Paris peace talks that might have produced a breakthrough in the conflict in Southeast Asia, a development that could have boosted the election prospects of Humphrey, who was tied to the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies.

Now we watch as a presidential transition that might have been conducted at an awkward coronavirus social distance unfurls in even more awkward circumstances. Biden might feel as Ulysses Grant did in 1869; he refused to sit beside his predecessor, the impeached Andrew Johnson. Trump might feel like the first President Johnson, who didn’t attend his successor’s inauguration. That was before television images raced across the country. A divided nation requires a moment of national unity to warm the chill of a January transfer of power.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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