Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Presidential Incapacity—A Serious Issue

PresidentWilson1919In anticipation of Ronald Reagan’s upcoming landmark birthday, his son Ron released a book yesterday entitled My Father at 100.  He contends that he saw evidence in the 1980s of the President’s Alzheimer’s disease that was only diagnosed in 1994, after his father  left office.

He believes had it been diagnosed during the presidency, the elder Reagan would have stepped down.  This observation, clearly nothing more than a retrospective observation, seems of relatively little importance at this point

What is significant is the whole issue of presidential incapacity and how it is addressed.  Reagan, who was the oldest president in U.S. history, had two periods of notable hospitalization:  one in the aftermath of his shooting in 1981 and the other for his intestinal cancer surgery four years later. 

In neither of these hospitalizations—during which general anesthesia was administered—was power transferred, as it could have been, to Vice President George Bush.  The 25th amendment to the  Constitution provides for a transfer in the event of an inability to discharge the duties of the presidency.  Bush, a loyal and cautious political figure, undertook whatever duties needed without appearing to temporarily usurp any power.

Ironically, it was his son, George W. Bush, who first activated the 25th amendment before being anesthetized for a brief procedure in 2002.   Bush was being responsible but there have been instances when presidents, without a clear constitutional option, were not.

The most egregious example of an impaired president continuing to serve amid secrecy—and being potentially harmful to the nation—involved Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in the fall of 1919 and was out of public view for six months.  His vice president, Thomas Marshall, did not see the President for a year and a half, until the day they both left office.

As Wilson ran down his tenure recuperating, the reins of government at the White House appeared to have been managed by his physician, Dr. Cary Grayson; Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson; and a few  functionaries.  It is generally understood that Mrs. Wilson signed several official documents.  While Wilson was recovering, his beloved Versailles treaty was defeated by the Senate.

About a quarter-century earlier, President Grover Cleveland underwent two secret operations for jaw cancer abroad a yacht on Long Island Sound.  It was the summer of 1893, and Cleveland was at the beginning of his second presidential term.  It was a turbulent period with economic and labor unrest.  But he recovered quickly and lived for another fifteen years.

An example of this issue in another democracy is seen with the secrecy surrounding the declining health of the aging Winston Churchill during his second tour as prime minister during 1951-1955.  Most notable was a serious and well-concealed stroke that occurred in 1953, during a tense period of the Cold War.  Few members of his Cabinet knew of the stroke.

The disability of a fictitious President is the basis of the humorous 1993 movie, Dave, in which presidential lookalike Kevin Kline plays the stricken leader.  But, of course, the issue of presidential disability is a very serious one, and it is important that the 25th amendment presents a responsible option.

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