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Our nation's history with presidential inability and succession

Our nation's history with presidential inability and succession
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In 1787, the Constitution’s framers inserted a clause into Article Two of the Constitution providing for presidential death, resignation, removal and inability. 

The clause has since been scrutinized, invoked and eventually expanded on by statutes and constitutional amendments — at times in response to situations where the president’s capacity has been questioned. With the nation currently in another one of those questioning moments, the history of presidential succession and inability is instructive.

Not long after the founding, presidential illness first confronted the nation. In 1790, President George Washington nearly lost his life to pneumonia so severe that it impaired his hearing and vision. Two decades later, President James Madison suffered an illness that left him unable to conduct the affairs of state. 

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In possibly the first presidential assassination attempt, a gunman fired twice on President Andrew Jackson in 1835. But both guns misfired, allowing Jackson to beat the attacker with his cane. The nation did not have such luck much longer. Only a month after President William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration, pneumonia took his life. His successor, Vice President John Tyler, had a brush with death when the cannon of a ship he was on exploded, killing the secretaries of state and Navy and five others. 

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor died from illness. Three years later, President Franklin Pierce suffered a different kind of illness, becoming severely depressed over his son’s death. In the following decade, a Confederate traitor infamously killed President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but it is less well-known that Lincoln narrowly avoided assassination a year before when a sniper’s bullet passed through his hat. In 1881, a gunman left President James Garfield incapacitated for 80 days before his death. In that time, ambiguity in the Constitution’s Succession Clause prevented the vice president from taking over. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland concealed his inability by having cancer surgery on a yacht. Another president fell to assassination when William McKinley was shot in 1901.

President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919 and mostly disappeared from public life for the final 18 months of his term. The secretary of state convened the Cabinet to discuss whether the vice president should assume the duties of the presidency, but they were stymied by the succession clause’s treatment of “inability” — and Wilson’s firing of the secretary of state for raising the prospect of his ouster.

Warren Harding, in 1923, succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. His successor, Calvin Coolidge, was struck by a nearly paralyzing depression after his son died.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, leading to Harry Truman’s succession. Five years later, terrorists targeting Truman at the White House complex killed a Secret Service agent.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced a string of health crises, including a heart attack and a stroke. The young and seemingly healthy President John F. Kennedy secretly suffered from Addison’s disease, and took painkillers and amphetamines to cope. Before the public learned of Kennedy’s ailments, he was assassinated.

The Kennedy assassination spurred Congress to address the gaps in the presidential succession framework. The 25th Amendment clarified that the vice president becomes president upon a presidential death, resignation or removal. It also created procedures for filling vacancies in the vice presidency and declaring presidential inabilities, both with and without the president’s participation. During a presidential inability, the vice president serves as acting president.

The 25th Amendment provided protection to the nation during the Watergate scandal. It allowed President Richard Nixon to appoint a replacement vice president (Gerald Ford) after Spiro Agnew’s resignation. If the position had stayed vacant with the Democratic speaker of the House next in the line of succession, Nixon may not have resigned. Nixon had become emotionally distraught as a result of the scandal, making his departure critical to national stability and security. Ford succeeded and nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president.

The 25th Amendment should have been invoked following the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. But that failure led the Reagan White House and many following administrations to take planning for the amendment’s use seriously. That is why Reagan and President George W. Bush both used the amendment to temporarily transfer power for medical procedures.

From the nation’s earliest years, its presidents have been attacked by assassins and ailments. Those tragedies have never spiraled into further catastrophes, sometimes only thanks to luck. The 25th Amendment makes the nation less reliant on good fortune. But it only works if leaders place the national interest above all else.

John D. Feerick is a dean emeritus and Norris professor of law at Fordham University School of Law.