It is a striking oddity of our history that the last century’s two wartime presidents were both severely disabled in their last months.
Joseph Lelyveld’s “His Final Battle” is the latest investigation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s final act. As we know now, FDR was in imminent danger of sudden death of congestive heart failure when he decided, with some reluctance, to run for a fourth term. He was already under the 24-hour care of a young Navy cardiologist and has consequently been accused by hostile historians of reckless deception. It is, however, unclear from Lelyveld’s account that FDR acknowledged the severity of his illness. He discussed it with no one, not even his vice president, and his 17,000-mile post-inaugural journey to the Crimea for the consequential summit with Churchill and Stalin presented an apt imitation of glowing health. In any case, Roosevelt’s debility, culminating in his death at Warm Springs, GA, in April 1945, continues to provoke historical argument.
The same is true of Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 paralytic stroke as he campaigned in Colorado for US participation in the League of Nations. His wife, the former Edith Galt, functioned as president for many months. Coupled with the assassination of John F. Kennedy (and other presidential murders) the stark memory of presidential unfitness was very much in the background of the recent 25th Amendment, a product of the 1960s.
That amendment has re-entered the news with the stunning eccentricities of Donald J. Trump. Section 4 offers a guarded process for removing a president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” But unfitness is not defined; and in their diligence to prevent partisan abuse, the framers of the 25th amendment rendered it nearly useless. Together with the partisan abuse of impeachment, the new amendment leaves us with no workable constitutional resort, even when the manners and mental fitness of a president are reasonably in question. The physical disability of FDR and Woodrow Wilson hardly compare with the extra-physical eccentricities of Donald Trump, which are as clear as a comic vaudeville act, which they closely resemble. Among countless lesser objections we have just been treated to another round of disturbing quasi-adolescent boasting, in response to a petty Asian tyrant: that Trump’s nuclear button is “bigger” than Kim Jong-un’s – a boast that brings bawdy parallels to mind.
It was this writer’s privilege, some years back, to sit in on a formal study of the 25th Amendment and its defects organized by Arthur Link, the Wilson biographer, and Dr. James Toole, a professor of neurology at Bowman Gray med school in Winston-Salem. The study was staffed with distinguished sages, political and medical, but apart from clarification offered no real answer to the central dilemma. The Section 2 mechanism for replacing a vice president had worked smoothly in the appointments of Gerald Ford and of Nelson Rockefellers, both able and politically experienced, but not the complex provision for the removal of an unfit president.
The contrast with parliamentary government is instructive. In England, original home of that alternative democratic system, peer judgment provides effective preliminary screening. When a designated party leader runs for election he or she has passed the tests of parliamentary experience and aptitude imposed by fellow MPs. Donald Trump would never have made it even to the threshold of power.
It must be added that the abuse of impeachment tends to discredit and bend it in the direction of a sterile legalism. The only weighty charge in the Andrew Johnson impeachment (1868) was that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, a statute whipped up for the purpose, requiring Senate approval of the removal of a cabinet officer – the idea was to protect Edwin Stanton, secretary of war and the Republican mole in Johnson’s cabinet. That act made it all but impossible for a president to “see that the laws be faithfully executed,” a prime constitutional obligation. The second-term impeachment of Bill Clinton relied on his deceptions regarding sex and was constitutionally trivial.
We need a serious discussion of this defect in our constitutional machinery, which today encumbers presidential discipline with petty legalism and shields a clownish misfit. “High crimes and misdemeanors” still lack useful definition but the need is today more glaring than ever.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill, the former editorial page editor for the Washington Star and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, is a contributing columnist.