In the immortal words of Alice (in Wonderland), 2020 just keeps getting “curiouser and curiouser.” As if this edition of the quadrennial presidential sweepstakes wasn’t strange enough already, the Wuhan Wahoo has rather pointedly made its presence known in the Oval Office. President Trump, the first lady, and several frontline White House staffers all tested positive for the coronavirus. Talk about Chinese influence in the election. Not even the Russians were able to disrupt things that much four years ago.
Fortunately, as I write this, both The Donald and Melania and the others affected in the West Wing seem to be recovering well. And we don’t have a constitutional crisis on our hands. Neither the president nor other federal officials have had to invoke the 25th amendment — the one that deals with the temporary relinquishing of power by the president. As you may recall, after becoming part of the law of the land in 1967, the 25th has only been used three times. Once when Ronald Reagan underwent a surgical procedure and twice when George W. Bush had routine scheduled colonoscopies. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened to the country during those brief interludes.
But what would happen if a president was really rendered incapacitated by a physical ailment such as COVID-19, or a major heart episode, or advanced cancer? The succession rule also put in place by Amendment 25 elevates the vice president to the decision-making console. You know, a vice president suddenly becoming president has happened a lot more frequently than many realize. Of the 44 souls who have held the office (Cleveland was #22 and #24), eight have died in office (either from natural causes or assassination). That’s 18%, which, in terms of high morbidity rates, probably ranks that profession right up there with daredevils and snake charmers. (Fun fact: Did you know that between 1840 and 1960, every president elected in a year divisible by 20 died in office?)
But back to succession. The lineup behind the vice president goes Speaker of the House of Representatives, then President Pro Tempore of the Senate. While you undoubtedly are familiar with the role of Speaker, you may be asking yourself, “What the heck is a President Pro Tempore?” Well, it’s generally an honorary title accorded the oldest sitting Senator in the majority party. So, at present, after 61-year-old Mike Pence, waiting in the wings should their services be needed are 80-year-old Nancy Pelosi and 87-year-old Chuck Grassley from Iowa. Feeling safer and more relieved by the minute, are you?
Since we do have a minimum age for being president (35), perhaps there should be a maximum one. Not for elected commander-in-chiefs maybe, but for anyone who might be elevated to that position through succession. If the 80+ year-olds you know are like the ones I do, while they may have a lot on the ball, they wouldn’t want any part of the rigors associated with running the free world.
Suppose not only Mr. Trump but also Joe Biden comes down with a serious case of COVID? There are provisions for the Republican and Democratic party to nominate others, but what the heck would that do to an already fractious election season? I know of several people who have cast a ballot early. What about all those mail-in requests? Are the voting machines already loaded with the designated nominees? Would those planning on voting in person have to actually write in a name? (A friend of mine did that for me once. He was fed up with both sides and printed my name on the dotted line. Alas, no one else did, so I didn’t win. But I told him I was honored by his thought.)
Given the rest of the havoc this year has wrecked on our lives, why should it come as any surprise at all that we’re even having national conversations about the what-ifs of succession, temporary power changes and new nominees? I really think it would just be a good idea to start 2020 all over again. Beginning in January, we just say this is 2020-Take 2. We don’t want to negate everything, of course. Lots of wonderful children joined the planet. Families are definitely spending more time with one another. (I’m hoping that’s a positive.) And many have discovered the joys of books, puzzles, games and other forms of quality entertainment.
If this year were a backyard battle of hoops, we could simply yell, “Do over,” and start anew. Or maybe a video game where we’d just hit the “restart” button and a new screen would pop up. Surely Silicon Valley can come up with some new program to make that happen, can’t it? I’d be willing to pay more than even $9.95 to download THAT app.