In continuing efforts to improve your blog-reading experience here, as well as to make it easier for me to keep cranking out content, I’ve decided to theme the week, similarly to what I did starting right after Thanksgiving in my Countdown to Christmas, which is what led to me deciding to post every day in the first place.
Since the theme thing for the aforementioned thing helped me so much, I’ve decided to bring it back now, as it applies to the subjects I like to write about. I’ve already established the Sunday Nibble, which is a short piece on a random subject, and recently also started your Saturday Reading as I excerpt parts of a novel written as a bunch of short stories.
That takes care of the weekends. The weekdays will cover history, language, science, and theatre — in that order — with Friday being a potluck of whatever has struck my fancy that week.
This being Monday, the subject is History, and I’d liked to dub it Momentous Mondays. Looking for inspiration, I searched for things that happened on this particular Monday, February 10, and turned up one that is sort of relevant to now, but not for reasons that anyone might read into it. But that will be explained shortly.
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When I looked up events that happened on February 10, I came up with two interesting choices. The first is that it was on this day in 1961 that the artist Roy Lichtenstein opened a show which included his painting “Look Mickey,” featuring his first use of so-called Ben-Day Dots, a general thievery (inspiration?) from/by golden age comic books, and something which would go on to somehow be the quintessential 80s pop-art stereotype. You may not know his name, but if you see one of his paintings in this style, you’d probably go, “Oh, yeah. That guy.”
But… I decided against that one because I find that kind of pop art gone commercial to be banal. While Lichtenstein tried to be edgy with the dialogue he put into the speech bubbles on a lot of his work, in retrospect a lot of it seemed to be punching down at women in general and feminists in particular. And don’t tell me that the woman in this painting, lamenting her lack of motherhood, doesn’t look a hell of a lot like Judy Garland who did, in fact, remember to have children.
For the kind of pop art gone successful that I do like, follow Banksy, who has managed to remain anonymous (and might even be a collective instead of a person) and pulled off the most brilliant art world troll ever with his insta-shredded painting that was, itself, probably a faked work of art.
So I went with the other event that happened on February 10 that caught my eye, and it was this one: On this day in 1967, the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It had been passed by Congress for approval by the states on July 6, 1965, and it was approved one year, seven months, and four days later.
As amendments go, that’s pretty damn fast — the ERA started the process in 1972, and may or may not have been finally ratified in January 2020, when Virginia voted to do so. So what was the impetus for passing the 25th Amendment? Well, first, what is the 25th?’
First off, it codifies the idea that the Vice President actually becomes President if the current President leaves office for any reason. Believe it or not, before that, there wasn’t really a definite rule one way or the other. It just sort of became tradition when John Tyler took over after William Henry Harrison kicked the bucket after 30 days in office.
He didn’t make a lot of friends doing this and, ultimately, when it looked like his own party was going to reject him for nomination for re-election in 1844, he formed his own independent party and ran as a single-issue candidate: Annexing Texas, which had only recently become independent from Mexico. You know — the usual America invading shit. When Andrew “Yeah, I’m a Racist” Jackson threw his support behind Tyler but the writing was on the wall that Tyler wasn’t going to win, it gave him the excuse to drop out of the race, and so he joined the less-than-one-term club.
The second bit of the 25th Amendment deals with what happens when the Vice Presidency becomes vacant and, believe it or not, there wasn’t anything set up to deal with this, either. Nobody automatically succeeded, and there was no clear mechanism for the President to pick someone to fill the spot. Consequently, throughout our history, there have been some big-ass gaps in the position, with the winner being Tyler again, who never had a Vice President.
Most of these four-year pushers happened in the 19th century, with the two notable exceptions being Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1905), who never picked a successor after McKinley was assassinated, and Harry S Truman 1945-1949), who never picked a VP during his first partial term after FDR died.
The most recent time there was a gap of more than a few days was in 1974, when Gerald Ford took over when Richard Nixon resigned and it took about four months before his VP choice was confirmed.
The third part of the Amendment involves the president sending a letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House basically saying, “Hey, y’all. Can’t do the President thing right now. Homie gonna ride the Oval until I tell you otherwise.”
This one has actually been used a couple of times but, oddly enough, generally only when a president is about to get a colonoscopy. It’s also clear, in Section 3, that the VP is only acting President.
The fourth part of the Amendment has never been invoked and is somewhat the nuclear option. In this one, the Vice President and majority of the Cabinet Officers send letters to the aforementioned congressional officers basically saying, “Hey, y’all, homie can’t handle doing the President thing, Blair House represents and requests promotion to the Oval.”
Or, in other words, the Vice President becomes acting President and the President is shut out, until they send their own letter saying, “Nu-uh.” There’s no time limit for this response other than, presumably, what would have been the end of the President’s term, but then the Vice President and Cabinet have four days to respond to the response, in effect transmitting their “no backsies” statement. Congress then has 48 hours to assemble and decide, by two-thirds majority of both houses, who wins.
Section Four has never been invoked, and, honestly, it really feels like a hand grenade that nobody from either party would ever fall on short of a full-on Madness of King George situation. It’s also a bit odd that the Constitution would give a prominent role to someone — the Vice President — with a vested interest in the process.
Good idea, poor execution. And at the point that Section Four were ever invoked, it seems like the congressional standard of removal should be simple majority, not two thirds. Not to mention that it sets the bar higher for the House than it is for impeachment.
So much for the what. It’s the way that is informative and scary. You see, basically, the assassination of JFK in 1963 reminded lawmakers of one thing: There was a hole in the Constitution bigger than the one Oswald put in Kennedy’s head. The Founders really hadn’t provided all that well for what happened when the President or Vice President or — OMFG! — both of them suddenly wound up out of office or unable to serve for whatever reason.
Resignation? Assassination? War? Revolution?
Now, granted, given the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, it’s possible that the Founders figured it would be possible to go for a maximum of slightly under four years without a President or Vice President, and that Congress and the Courts could handle it on their own, or that the Vice President would only assume the powers of the President but that Congress and the Courts would decide on a replacement method if it became necessary.
They did make an attempt in 1792 — probably not coincidentally around the time George Washington was saying that he was not going to run for a second term. Popular sentiment convinced him otherwise, but the Presidential Secession Act of 1792 is a hot mess. Not only does it create the clusterfuck that is the useless Electoral College, it only stipulates what happens when both the Presidency and Vice Presidency are vacant, something that has never yet occurred in the history of the country.
Of course, Tyler was their first test of what happens when only one office goes vacant, and Congress set precedent by pretty much saying, “Oh. Okay,” once Tyler took the oath of office and moved into the White House.
The other two attempts were in 1886, goaded by the assassination of James Garfield and the death of Vice President Thomas Hendricks both leaving vacancies, and in 1947, after FDR died while World War II was still going on.
While the assassination of JFK was the obvious public impetus for the first parts of the 25th Amendment, the fourth section may seem a bit of a mystery, but it’s also dealing with an historical precedent, and one that not a lot of people know about. In 1919, just after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Wilson’s wife went into full-on Nancy Reagan mode, limiting access to a bedridden president and, really, becoming the de facto president for the remaining two years of his term. She certainly limited the Vice President’s access to the man and, as history later revealed, only she and his doctor knew, and she forged his signature on documents left and right.
The 25th Amendment would certainly give a modern Vice President confronted with the same suspicious activity a good chance of rallying the cabinet and rooting out a hidden illness or manipulative spouse — although if that spouse had the balls to forge things the way that Edith Wilson did, it would probably become moot as well.
So the lesson regarding the 25th and the whole Constitution really is this: the Founders were only human, and they left so much wiggle room in there that it’s ridiculous. And that’s a big problem. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to start urging your lawmakers to take sides and close those holes, as well as to adjust things to accommodate life as it is now, not as it was in the late 18th century.
Which brings up another thought: Why is it only politicians who get to invoke the 25th? Shouldn’t that also be the domain of doctors, psychologists, and the like? That certainly would have caught out Wilson’s lie quickly.