WASHINGTON - Having watched many chief executives take over the White House, I thought I might offer some unsolicited advice to the current president-elect.
Not that George W. Bush needs it. He has returned enough has-beens to power to show him the ropes. But here goes:
Read the fine print on important documents left by your predecessor. John F. Kennedy failed to do that on arriving in the Oval Office in 1961 and promptly signed off on the Dwight Eisenhower-Richard Nixon blueprint for the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It was a debacle.
Unless it's absolutely necessary, don't make a move on the international front for three or four weeks after you are sworn in so that you will understand the risks and the costs.
Take time to find out what the federal government really does - what its programs are. For example, as you have now learned, Social Security is a federal program and has worked well since it went into effect 65 years ago. Don't subject recipients to the uncertainties of Wall Street. Investors have enough money to play with.
Remember that the government has often been the solution, not the problem. Ask all the people around the country who have been helped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when natural disasters have struck. It shows that in times of crisis, people can depend on the central government, which you will be running.
Don't randomly fire the holdover career officers who run the White House and are always ready to serve any president, whoever he is. The Clintons are still paying the price for firing the veteran staffers of the White House Travel Office and other longtime employees who loved their White House duties.
Understand that you will be living in what some presidents call "public housing." The White House belongs to the American people, who are permitted to visit at certain hours on certain days. It's a goldfish bowl, but you asked for it.
Accept that the press corps is there to stay. Members have squatters' rights in a part of the West Wing. The press is indispensable since it is the only institution in our society that has the privilege of questioning a president about his actions and policies, a function that holds him accountable on a regular basis. In our country, the people have the right to know. And as I'm sure you learned from experience, don't call reporters bad names - at least not on open mikes. The scribes and their colleagues will report it.
Don't worry about your privacy. If you really wanted it, you would not have gone into public life. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked that if you don't do anything, you can have a lot of privacy in the White House. Actually, you will have all sorts of it upstairs in the Executive Mansion; at your parents' summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine; at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains; and at your ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Keep in mind that secrecy is endemic in the White House. Too much of it can lead to dire consequences. The Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon is a case in point. So is the Iran-contra scandal of the Ronald Reagan administration.
And don't forget: When in doubt, call your dad, former President George Bush.
But there are still other pitfalls to avoid. If you don't mind, I'll just name a few that have plagued other presidents.
Surely, Nixon regretted tape recording everything that was said in the Oval Office. And Jimmy Carter might caution against canoe trips - for fear of encountering a "killer rabbit."
Of course, you would never let one of your aides brag, as Lyndon Johnson's staffer Jack Valenti did, that he is sleeping better because you are president. Nor would you ever talk to the presidential portraits in the White House, as Nixon and Hillary Rodham Clinton did.
And speaking of the Clintons, you will certainly refrain from seeking a $250,000 donation for a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom.
You, of course, have learned a lesson from the Reagan years, too. So you will watch out for rogue aides in the National Security Council who try conduct an underground foreign policy.
You won't confide everything to a close aide - unless you want to see your innermost secrets turn up in a "kiss-and-tell" book.
And you will certainly avoid the urge to bond with ordinary people by doing what Mr. Carter did - carry your own wardrobe bag off Air Force One. The image created by that nearly ruined Mr. Carter.
If you want to be like so many other incoming presidents, start running for re-election the moment you set foot in the White House.
There's no time to lose.
But in the process, remember that you and all the other federal workers are public servants, paid by the taxpayers, who swear to obey the U.S. Constitution. You hold the public trust. It's an awesome responsibility.
Happy New Year.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers and can be reached at 202-298-6920 or at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.