passages of power

On Wednesday I interviewed a professor at the University of Cape Town. Prof Mike Inggs celebrates his 21st year in the Engineering faculty this year, and he has been studying various aspects of radar technology for most of that time. He told me many things that were really interesting, but he may be surprised that the one comment that really stuck in my mind was when he that he didn't know if the study of radar would continue after he was gone.

(The picture of radar here is pretty misleading in this context, but it is pretty. And nothing says radar more than a green screen. With blips. The kind of radar that Prof Inggs and his team works with does far more. More about that another time.)

"Often when a professor retires, that's the end of it," he said. "New people come in with new interests and ideas, and knowledge is lost."

Guest writer Skoorby has written today's post, and he has some really interesting things to say about transitions and how they can happen.

Over to Skoorby:

Two news items from this week so far:

HARARE January 19: The Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai have failed to reach a deal on forming a unity government.

WASHINGTON January 20: Barack Hussein Obama took over the presidency of the United States from George W. Bush in an inauguration ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Why didn’t people celebrate the departure of George W. Bush? I feel almost as pleased about the end of Bush’s catastrophic presidency as I do about Obama’s election. I’d like to have seen a little more Bush-bashing. I’d like to have seen Bush’s entrance greeted not by polite hand-clapping (and a few scattered boos), but by complete silence and faces averted. I’d like to have seen Obama telling Bush in pointed terms just how badly his weakness, his rigidity and his laziness has failed us all. I’d like to have seen Bush leaving, not in a Marines helicopter and his own jumbo jet, but in a cab to take him to the airport for a coach flight back to wherever it is he comes from.

None of that happened, of course. There are norms about how these transitions take place, and no-one even contemplated any of the things that I would like to have seen. There was no question of how well or how badly the outgoing president had done. There was only the repetition of the long-established traditions.

Within each presidential term, the president has great power and discretion. As we now know, the president can even behave like an autocrat and get away with it. But only within the term of the presidency. Across terms, any single president is powerless. The long-cycle power lies in the norms and traditions. It lies in the system of government. Ultimately, it lies in the idea of the state, originally laid out in the constitution, but also as amended and reinterpreted over time.

The failure to effect a transition in Zimbabwe stands in vivid contrast to the events in Washington. Clearly the levels of recent incompetence and mismanagement in the United States and Zimbabwe are not remotely comparable, but the smooth transition yesterday in Washington does provide some insight into the problem in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s presidency is the first for post-UDI Zimbabwe. There has never been a transition of power. Other than the armed conflict that established Zimbabwe, there are no norms and traditions to govern the process. Every decision, every procedure followed in Zimbabwe has to be invented, and is necessarily personal. When it comes, the end of Mugabe’s control will be more like the end of the country. Whoever follows him will have to reinvent the idea of the state, and deal again and afresh with the issue of transfer of power.


It is amazing to me how smoothly the transfer of power goes from one presidential administration to the next. In this case, the outgoing President continued his practice of being on vacation, at least mentally, between the election and inauguration, except to stand up and tell everyone how cooperative he was being (while trying to back door regs gutting environmental protection, refusing to let the president-elect and his family stay at Blair House, etc.) And oh by the way, how wonderfully successful his presidency was. . . but yesterday, an UN official whose job it is to prosecute war crimes/torture made it clear that the UN has authority to undertake investigation and prosecution whether or not U.S. legal remedies have been exhausted (or even begun). The former president is overly optimistic about how the world judges success and how amenable the world is to revisionist history. As for our press, the contingent at MSNBC regularly took Bush to task and were reviled by the White House and their partisan supporters.
julochka said…
as i watched the inauguration, what i marveled at was cheney in a wheelchair. i wondered if he had actually been dead for three years and it was but his waxen lenin-like corpse in the wheelchair, being wheeled out of the bunker under the white house for one last time...but my reveries aside, the transition of power was indeed a smooth one. sad for zimbabwe that it hasn't happened there. i'm certain skoorby is right that it will mean the reinvention of zimbabwe, but to be honest, i'm hoping for a reinvention of the US on a similar scale...goodness knows it's needed after eight years of the bush/cheney shameful debacle.

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