Crisis: Harrowing Presidential Transitions from Lincoln to Biden
The peaceful transfer of power, a bedrock condition of democracy, came under assault as insurrectionists heeding President Trump’s call disrupted Congress’s affirmation of the Electoral College. The turmoil only added to an already rocky transition: President-Elect Biden’s team says that the Trump administration has interfered with its access to government agencies, a situation that could hamper the new president’s ability to manage national security, public health, and a battered economy. Meanwhile, many Republican members of Congress have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s win, stoking public doubts about the election’s legitimacy.
While these circumstances are unique, the nation has experienced fraught transitions before — perhaps none more so than when Southern states met Lincoln’s election with secession. A distinguished panel of historians and journalists discusses why the transition period is so crucial and what Biden can learn from history.
This event was produced in partnership with the Center for Brooklyn History at Brooklyn Public Library and New York University's John Brademas Center.
Jonathan Alter, Author, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life
Jonathan Alter is a best-selling author, longtime television commentator, award-winning columnist, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and comedy producer.
Alter is the author of three New York Times bestsellers: "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope" (2006), named one of the New York Times 100 "Notable Books of the Year"; "The Promise: President Obama, Year One" (2010), which went to number three on the Times bestsellers list; and "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies" (2013). He is also the author of "Between the Lines: A View Inside American Politics, Media and Culture" (2008), a collection.
A former columnist and senior editor at Newsweek (1983-2011), Alter is a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. In 2019, he co-produced and co-directed "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists," an HBO documentary, which won the 2020 Emmy for Best Historical Documentary. In 2013-2014, he co-produced, with Garry Trudeau, "Alpha House," an Amazon original comedy series. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Emily Lazar, a producer.
Hon. Donna F. Edwards, Washington Post columnist, member of Congress (2008-2017)
Donna F. Edwards is a Washington Post contributing columnist who writes across a broad range of topics. Edwards represented Maryland’s 4th District for five terms in Congress, where she served on the committees on Transportation and Infrastructure; Science, Space and Technology; and Ethics, and on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Prior to her time in office, she worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center with the Spacelab program, and also had a successful career in philanthropy and nonprofit advocacy. After leaving politics, she spent three months on a solo road trip around the country's state and national parks in an RV; she is writing a book about the experience. She provides political commentary regularly on NBC, MSNBC and Fox. When she is not focused on politics and policy, Edwards spends her time hiking, biking, fishing and camping.
Michael Waldman (Moderator), President, Brennan Center for Justice
Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. A nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving systems of democracy and justice, the Brennan Center is a leading national voice on voting rights, money in politics, criminal justice reform, and constitutional law. Waldman, a constitutional lawyer and writer who is an expert on the presidency and American democracy, has led the Center since 2005.
Waldman was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999, serving as assistant to the president. He was responsible for writing or editing nearly two thousand speeches, including four State of the Union and two inaugural addresses. He was special assistant to the president for policy coordination from 1993 to 1995.
He is the author of The Fight to Vote (Simon & Schuster, 2016), a history of the struggle to win voting rights for all citizens. The Washington Post wrote, “Waldman’s important and engaging account demonstrates that over the long term, the power of the democratic ideal prevails — as long as the people so demand.” The Wall Street Journal called it “an engaging, concise history of American voting practices,” and the Miami Herald described it as “an important history in an election year.” The Fight to Vote was a Washington Post notable nonfiction book for 2016 and a History Book Club main selection.
Waldman is also the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Publishers Weekly called it “the best narrative of its subject.” In the New York Times, Joe Nocera called it “rigorous, scholarly, but accessible.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “[Waldman’s] calm tone and habit of taking the long view offers a refreshing tonic in this most loaded of debates.” In a Cardozo Law Review symposium devoted to the book, a historian wrote, “The Second Amendment is, without doubt, among the best efforts at melding constitutional history and constitutional law on any topic — at least since the modern revival of originalism two generations ago.”
His previous books are My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America’s Presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama (2003, 2010), A Return to Common Sense (2007), POTUS Speaks (2000), and Who Robbed America? A Citizen’s Guide to the S&L Scandal (1990).
His frequent appearances on television and radio to discuss policy, the presidency, and the law include Good Morning America, the Colbert Report, Morning Joe, PBS NewsHour, CBS Evening News, Meet the Press Daily, All In with Chris Hayes, the O’Reilly Factor, Nightline, 60 Minutes, Tavis Smiley, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and the Rachel Maddow Show, as well as NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air. He writes for the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, Slate, Democracy, Reuters, Bloomberg, and other national publications.
He is a graduate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law.
Ted Widmer, Author, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington
Edward (Ted) Ladd Widmer is a historian, writer, librarian, and musician who served as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House. He is developing a new Humanities Lab at Macaulay. His latest book is Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
Prof. Widmer obtained an A.B. in the history and literature of France and the United States, an A.M. in history, and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University. At Harvard, he was an editor at the Harvard Lampoon. Widmer was appointed lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University from 1993 until 1997. From 1997 to 2001, he worked in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, foreign policy speech writer and Senior Advisor for Special Projects, which involved advising on history and scholarship related issues. He later conducted extensive interviews with Clinton while the former president was writing his autobiography.
He was the first director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience from 2001 to 2006 and an associate professor of history at Washington College from 2001. While there he created the George Washington Book Prize, an annual award given to the best book on the founding fathers.
In 2006 he was appointed Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, where he led efforts to digitize the library’s holdings, and raised funds to save Haitian libraries in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. From 2012 to 2013, Widmer was a senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Between 2010 and 2015, he helped to create and often contributed to The New York Times “Disunion,” a digital history of the Civil War. In October, 2016, Widmer was appointed Director of the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.