A Heartbeat Away

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Then, only a few years later, the Wilson administration gave us another preview of national calamity. Wilson’s Vice President was the amiable Thomas R. Marshall, former governor of Indiana. A favorite son when the convention opened at Baltimore in 1912, he was designated with almost no opposition by an exhausted assemblage which had taken forty-five inconclusive ballots before choosing Woodrow Wilson to bear its standard. Marshall was as popular as any Vice President in our history and lives in a special heaven for his deathless observation: “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” Although never close to President Wilson, he was a genial teammate.

Despite his kindliness and personal affability, Marshall was often undignified in his expressions. To the visitors who peered into his office at the Capitol he sometimes called out: “If you don’t come in, throw me a peanut.” Although he often spoke out on public questions, he did not respect the office itself. A witty man, he sharpened his tongue against the lack of duties to perform. He once talked of his office this way: “The Vice President is like a man in a cataleptic state; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him.”

Whatever self-hate and inadequacy Marshall may have felt, many of his friends regarded his humility as his chief drawback. When Wilson was stricken in 1919, Marshall expressed the opinion that it would be a tragedy if he were called upon to take over the reins of government. By then, many Americans heartily agreed. Wilson himself had once referred to his Vice President as a “small caliber man.”

Quite apart, though, from Marshall’s intellectual shortcomings—which were patently considerable and which spoke badly for the sense of responsibility of the Democratic convention delegates who nominated him—there was the awful drama of a country presided over by an incapacitated and bedridden Chief Executive who would not resign. At one point when Marshall was being pressed to confront the terrible fact of the President’s disability, he declared plaintively: “I am not going to seize the place and then have Wilson, recovered, come around and say, ‘Get off, you usurper!’” Mrs. Wilson became in fact if not in law the first woman President of the United States, among other things screening the President’s incoming mail (and leaving some of it unopened) and protecting him diligently from the affairs of his administration. It is no tribute to that First Lady that her conception of loyalty to her husband served the country poorly and served not at all his conception of the Presidency as a place of vibrant leadership.

Can we afford such an interregnum again in our own day? Clearly we cannot: a repetition could easily become the nightmare of the republic. Time for us to act may even now be running out, for it does no good to ignore the fact that Lyndon Johnson was critically ill with a “moderately severe” heart attack in 1955. Congress and the states must act without delay to accept and ratify the constitutional amendment proposed, after extended hearings this spring, by Senator Birch Bayh’s subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. Under that amendment, if a President declares in writing that he is unable to perform the duties of his office, the Vice President would immediately become Acting President. And if an incapacitated President should not so declare, the Vice President, with the concurrence in writing of the majority of the Cabinet “or such other body as Congress may by law provide,” would inform Congress of the President’s inability to discharge the obligations of his office, and would become Acting President forthwith.

Upon informing Congress that his inability no longer existed, the President would resume his office. In the event of a dispute over the fact of his recovery, the Vice President, again with the concurrence of a majority of the Cabinet or “such other body as Congress may by law provide,” would within two days inform Congress, which “shall immediately decide the issue.” If by a two-thirds vote Congress should find the President still unable to discharge his duties, the Vice President would continue as Acting President.

The amendment also deals with the matter of presidential succession. It provides for keeping the Vice Presidency always filled. If a vacancy occurred, the President would name a Vice President, subject to confirmation by a majority of both houses of Congress.

Hand in hand with providing against disaster caused by presidential disability and death should go a new resolve to select vice-presidential nominees with an eye to the fragility of life. Of the twenty men who have served in the White House in the last hundred years, six—thirty per cent—arrived there accidentally, via the Vice Presidency. The time has come to give the nomination of vice-presidential candidates the seri ous attention which events have repeatedly proved it deserves. The selection of a running mate should not be simply the last item on the agenda of tired delegates who want to go home.

A principal difficulty is that in our political culture it is almost impossible for a hopeful to mount a preconvention campaign for the second place. Such activity would be ridiculed into the ground. Yet how else can a man make himself known and permit himself to be judged? On the other hand, can a potential Vice President serve effectively if his outstanding recommendations for the office are the stands he has taken on important issues, stands which may be at variance with those of the nominee for President?