Sunday, November 22, 2009

Presidential Succession

Today, of course, is the anniversary of one of the most significant events of the 20th century — the assassination of President Kennedy here in Dallas in 1963.

For 46 years, one of the things that has bothered conspiracy theorists is the behavior of Vice President Lyndon Johnson on that day. In a recent documentary on the History Channel, it was suggested that Johnson hastily arranged to take the oath of office on board Air Force One before leaving Dallas in part because he feared that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy would try to find some way to deprive him of the presidency.

In 1963, that might have seemed unlikely to an American public that had long been conditioned to the idea that the vice president would be the next in line if a president died in office. But that was a procedure that was rooted in a 122–year–old precedent that, independent of constitutional authority, had elevated seven vice presidents to the presidency following a president's death. In fact, presidential succession was not established legally until the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967.

The truth is that Johnson's concerns were not unjustified even if LBJ appeared, on the surface, to be a bit paranoid.

This may be obvious to readers of this blog, but I have long been fascinated by history's ironic twists and turns. November 22 is loaded with them — and not just in the 20th century.

Take, for example, the case of Richard Nixon and the "Wilson desk."

When Nixon became vice president, he asked for the "Wilson desk" for his office, and his request was granted. But it turned out the desk didn't belong to the Wilson that Nixon had in mind. Nixon was an admirer of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, but the desk that adorned his vice presidential office and, later, the Oval Office had belonged to Henry Wilson, the 18th vice president, who served under Ulysses S. Grant.

Henry Wilson was Grant's running mate when Grant sought re–election in 1872. He replaced Vice President Schuyler Colfax on the ticket. Colfax was embroiled in a scandal and was considered too controversial; ironically, it was revealed after the election that Wilson was tainted by the same scandal.

That isn't the part that I find truly ironic, though. After being sworn in, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that affected his ability to preside over the Senate although he tried to persevere in spite of his limitations. Then, on this day in 1875, he suffered a second, fatal stroke, becoming the fourth vice president to die in office. The vice presidency remained vacant until Rutherford B. Hayes and his running mate, William Wheeler, took office in 1877.

A century later, in 1973, Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned amid charges of corruption, and about a month later, Nixon nominated a replacement for Agnew under the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Nixon, of course, chose Gerald Ford, who succeeded him when Nixon resigned in 1974 and became the second president to nominate an unelected vice president.

Here's the ironic part — for me, anyway. If the 25th Amendment had been the law of the land when Henry Wilson was alive, Grant would have had to pick a replacement for him when he died in 1875. But the vice presidency remained vacant for nearly 16 months.

If Grant had died before his term ended, I suppose he would have been replaced by the president pro tempore of the Senate (which would have been Republican Thomas Ferry of Michigan — the state Ford represented in Congress). In Grant's day, the president pro tempore was next in line after the vice president. Congress changed the order in 1886, making members of a president's Cabinet the next in line until the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which made the speaker of the House next after the vice president. The speaker remained second in line behind the vice president after the passage of the 25th Amendment.

America has been a work in progress for more than two centuries. If the Founding Fathers had been blessed with the ability to anticipate every possible scenario, they could have spelled out from the beginning the procedures for presidential succession and filling vice presidential vacancies.

If that had been the case, Johnson's legal ascendance to the presidency in 1963 could not have been questioned by RFK or anyone else. Instead of being in a hurry to establish a legitimate claim to the Oval Office, LBJ could have focused on whether the assassination had been an international conspiracy involving the Russians or the Cubans, a domestic conspiracy involving organized crime or rogue operatives in the intelligence community or the act of a lone individual — and taking the appropriate steps.

But, as it turned out, the practice of a vice president succeeding a president who did not complete his term in office was not established until 1841, when William Henry Harrison died only a month after taking office and John Tyler, amid considerable confusion brought about by an unprecedented development, took the oath of office. At the time, the ambiguous language of Article II of the Constitution did not indicate whether a vice president would become president or merely an "acting president" if the duly elected president was unable to discharge the duties of the office.

Tyler then served the rest of his term with no vice president.

Back to the "Wilson desk."

Nixon apparently believed throughout his eight years as vice president that it was Woodrow Wilson's desk in his office because he asked for the same desk when he became president in 1969. He even referred to it once in a speech from the White House — his "silent majority" speech in November 1969.

After learning the truth about the desk, speechwriter William Safire took it upon himself to break the news to Nixon, and he briefly discussed — in his book "Before The Fall" — a memo he wrote to Nixon explaining what apparently had happened.

"Spin" was a concept that had not been defined at the time, but Safire proceeded to give the mistake the best spin he could, pointing out to Nixon that Henry Wilson had been an early abolitionist and one of the founders of Nixon's Republican Party.

Nixon, though, was never one to admit a mistake, and he never — to my knowledge — publicly corrected the error.

My guess is that he tried to cover it up.

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