Last Person Standing: The Presidential Succession Act Turns 75

by Michael Liss

I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, April 12, 1945.

Cartoon by Jim Barstow, originally published in General Electric News, October 2, 1949.

It was all so fast. Just moments earlier, FDR was sitting for an official portrait, reading the newspapers, writing a few notes. Now, after 12 years of turmoil, World War and Depression, he is gone, work unfinished. Within hours, his successor, Harry S. Truman, is sworn in, and, for the first time, is told of the Manhattan Project. The awesome moral responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons falls on his shoulders, and a bullseye appears on his back.

The fact is that Vice Presidents are pretty much non-entities, supporting actors in a one-man play, unless and until they suddenly become the most important person in the world. History shows us that this occurs far more often than simple mortality tables might suggest. By one estimate, being President is about 27 times more dangerous than being a lumberjack.

The authors of the Constitution understood this, but, after vigorously debating the extent of Executive Power and the interrelationship of the three branches of government, and creating the future monster known as the Electoral College, they flickered out a bit when it came to figuring out Presidential succession beyond the elevation of the VP. Instead, they kicked the can to Congress in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6, to declare which “Officer” would act as President if both the President and Vice President died or were otherwise unavailable to serve during their terms of office “until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.” Read more »

Is Joe Biden Mentally Fit to Be President? Here’s What Doctors Think

by Godfrey Onime

President-elect, Joe Biden
President-elect, Joe Biden

Just months after the new president was sworn into office, a would-be assassin’s bullet whizzed through the air and sliced into his chest. It  cracked his rib, punctured his left lung, and barely missed his heart.  It was March 30th, 1981 and Ronald Reagan was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital, in Washington, DC.  His wife arrived as Reagan was being whisked to surgery and the injured president managed to croak, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Reagan recovered fully after surgery, becoming the first U.S. president to survive an assassination attempt after a gunshot. Three years later and aged 73, he would clinch a resounding reelection to become, until now, the oldest person to win a presidential bid. But soon questions of a potential mental decline began to mount concerning the septuagenarian, such as when during a 1984 general election debate he told an anecdote that meandered aimlessly and fizzled to nowhere. A decade later, Reagan would announce that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

President Ronald Reagan recovering at George Washington Hospital after his 1981 shooting
President Ronald Reagan recovering at George Washington University Hospital after his 1981 shooting

Age, it is often said, is just a number. But when it comes to the presidency of the United States, is it really? Should it simply be? This question is compounded by the lack of guidance in the U.S. constitution: While it places a minimal age requirement of 35 to run for office, it imposes no upper age limit.

And now, the country has elected Joe Biden to assume the presidency at age 78 – one year older than when Reagan, after a second term, left the post. That is among the many presidential histories that Biden’s election has made — the oldest person to date to be rewarded with America’s highest office. Yet, an advanced age puts a person at increased risk for diseases and health complications, including heart attack,  stroke, various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and of course, death. After all, as George Burns once quipped, “At my age, flowers scare me.” Read more »