Should presidents be sane? Obviously, most would say. But there the real problem begins.
Sanity is a relative term, defying fixed definition, even among trained clinicians. Is it sane for a new president to insist that millions of illegal votes were cast in a recent election largely overseen by Republicans and of which no solid evidence has appeared? And what about the flirtation with a two-China policy that Presidents Nixon and Carter ended decades ago – inasmuch as “mainland” China is the most influential regional minder of North Korean’s juvenile delinquent leader? His declared aim is to produce a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US. Is it sane to promise the restoration of coal mining when American power companies are rapidly closing down coal-burning generators? Has the new administration heard of coal ash? And what about a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico, which would burden the working class consumers who constitute Trump’s main constituency? And not least, what about the flurry of vague and ill-considered executive orders, one of which offends every Muslim everywhere and has brought chaos to airline travel?
Where is the line between irrationality, on the one hand, and political expediency on the other?
I can testify, with some assurance, to the difficulty of monitoring presidential sanity. I once participated in a study group on the 25th Amendment organized by Woodrow Wilson’s biographer Arthur Link. The object was to clarify the provisions for presidential “inability,” whether temporary (as in Ronald Reagan’s prolonged recovery from the Hinkley gunshot ) or permanent, as in presidential assassinations. Not to be forgotten is the lingering 80-day death of President Garfield in the 19th century, when international dangers did not exist.
The 25th Amendment, for the first time in U.S. constitutional history, provides a mechanism for removing a chief executive on grounds of “inability.” As constitutional mechanisms must be, it is hedged with precautions. Section 4 provides that when the chief officers of House and Senate both declare, in writing, “that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office...Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within 48 hours for that purpose if not in session.”A list of precautionary actions follow.
The 25th amendment was designed for common contingencies, but it does offer an emergency mechanism that could be invoked if a president were found to be certifiably deranged, as judged by the irrationality of his actions. No such contingency is known. In the 20th century, three presidents – Wilson, Eisenhower and Reagan – have been disabled, all temporarily; and in the Link conferences there was some discussion of the wartime case of FDR who suffered from the impaired circulation that killed him within months of his fourth inauguration.
Among the participants were former White House physicians acquainted with the improvisations usually occasioned by presidential illness, when gaps in leadership have been filled in irregular ways. Wilson’s disabling stroke in 1919 was the most troubling. It offered his officious second wife, Edith Galt, the self-appointed role of acting president. She played it brazenly, and without a shadow of constitutional authority. The vice president, Thomas Marshall, seems to have gone into hiding, while other principal executive officers were barred by Edith Wilson from the presidential bedchamber.
The paramount topic of the Link conference was whether perilous lapses in presidential leadership in the nuclear age could be anticipated and remedies regularized. The state of presidential health is inevitably a roll of the dice and occasionally hidden. One group of physicians, their certainties unqualified by experience, proposed what they deemed a fool-proof plan: An official panel provided by law (and dominated by doctors) would evaluate the president’s physical and mental health yearly and report. The former White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, commented that “nothing could be more alarming than a 5-4 vote that the president is sane.” Thus the deeply experienced Mr Cutler put the problem in nutshell -- a nutshell fatal to the panel idea.
But what is the alternative? Among our number was Birch Bayh, who as chairman of the Senate judiciary committee had overseen the framing of the 25th Amendment. He had a host of interesting reminiscences. But I don’t recall that he, or anyone else, came up with a silver-bullet solution. The haunting possibility of un-remedied presidential derangement remains.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.