It appears increasingly unlikely that President Joe Biden can finish this year, let alone his term, in the Oval Office. One need not be a physician to see the substantial cognitive decline that’s occurred even since Biden was a candidate. Sooner or later, Biden may either be persuaded to voluntarily resign or face a first-ever formal challenge to a president’s continuance in office, per the 25th Amendment.
To date, we have managed reasonably well in the face of presidential disability, with the signal exception of the Lincoln assassination. His death unleashed demons that dashed Lincoln’s hopes for the aftermath of America’s most ruinous war that, “with malice towards none and charity for all,” would “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Today’s emerging grave crisis comes at a time that manifests the most savage domestic partisanship since the Civil War, exacerbated by the malignant accelerants of mass and social media and exploited by a coterie of political, financial, cultural, and globalist elites. Society is still reeling from 18 months of pandemic hell and summer 2020’s protected orgiastic rioting. The latter triggered nationwide destruction of once-revered national symbols and left major American cities devastated, with spiraling crime and sputtering economies. Never in my 74 years of life — not even at the height of the Cold War, save for the transient fortnight of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis — has the famed first verse of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), seemed more apt:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In a historical coincidence, 1919 marked the first great 20th-century leadership crisis in America, that being the year that Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive, permanently debilitating stroke. Then, in 1945, came Franklin Roosevelt’s death, less than 100 days into a term for which he should never have run; it left Vice President Harry Truman scandalously unprepared by the dying FDR, who never even told Truman about the atomic bomb. Fortunately, Truman rose to the occasion. The third crisis was after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, when an orderly succession by Lyndon Johnson was handled as well as could be hoped without the formal guidance that a constitutional amendment would have provided. Johnson made the 25th Amendment a primary project for his administration and succeeded in winning ratification halfway through his one full term, to his great credit.
But our story begins nearly two centuries earlier, when the 1787 Grand Convention yielded a Constitution that was a marvel, without equal on the planet, but also without addressing the grave issues attendant to presidential and vice-presidential disability. To be fair, the Framers were dealing with immense, complex, and vexing issues of fundamental structure, powers, and rights, all from scratch and within a narrow window of time. Had this been missed, it might well have doomed hopes for “a more perfect union” for decades, perhaps forever.
In the nation’s early days, presidential and vice-presidential disabilities were minimal. Two vice presidents who served under James Madison died while in office (George Clinton, 1811, and Elbridge Gerry, 1812); a third vice-presidential vacancy occurred in 1832, when John C. Calhoun resigned to accept an appointment as senator for South Carolina. In all, during Madison’s two terms, the nation was without a vice president for over three years. The only presidential disability of consequence was when Madison was sidelined for four months in 1813 with an illness never definitively diagnosed.
The 1840s and 1850 were to provide several dramas. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia one month after his March 4, 1841, inaugural address, which ran more than two hours and was delivered in a cold rain. John Tyler succeeded him. Though Tyler was not required by the Constitution to take an oath when ascending to the presidency — the Framers thought a vice president having taken the vice-presidential oath sufficed — Tyler insisted on being formally sworn in, establishing a precedent followed ever since. Similarly, Millard Fillmore succeeded Zachary Taylor in 1850, and Andrew Johnson did so upon Lincoln’s murder by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
The first protracted presidential crisis came with the shooting of James Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker on July 2, 1881. Garfield lingered for 79 days and died on September 19. Chester Arthur, who had never held office higher than New York City port commissioner, became president. At the time, not only was the vice presidency now vacant, but the offices of president pro tempore of the Senate and speaker of the house, the only two in line of succession per a 1792 law, were also vacant.
Had Arthur died before Grover Cleveland was sworn in on March 4, 1885, the only procedure available was to call a special election. Not until the 1886 federal election law was passed were Cabinet officials placed officially in the line of succession. The 1886 law, passed during Grover Cleveland’s first term, added the then-existing seven Cabinet officers to the succession list in the order that departments had been created, beginning with the State Department and Treasury Department.
Cleveland’s second term was marked in early 1893 by developing a cancerous tumor in his right jaw while on vacation. He underwent emergency surgery, during which part of his jaw was removed to be replaced by an artificial implant. It was five weeks before he returned to Washington. Of this drama, not only was the public unaware; only one member of the Cabinet knew. Worse (not making this up), Vice President Adlai Stevenson (whose son was to lose twice to Eisenhower, six decades later) was kept in the dark. It was not until 1917 that the episode was made public. In the interim, on September 6, 1901, an anarchist gunned down William McKinley, who died eight days later, which made Theodore Roosevelt president.
Then the you-know-what really hit the fan.
Woodrow Wilson fell ill in September 1919. He was in the later stages of a punishing nationwide tour searching for support for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and entrance into the nascent League of Nations. He returned to Washington on September 28, and on October 2, he was laid low by a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side. Thus ended any serious chance of Wilson achieving his cherished twin goals (albeit, both battles were already steeply uphill). For more than six months, Wilson hardly saw anyone and was only able to do minimal work for the remainder of his term. From October 2, 1919, to March 4, 1921, when Warren Harding became president, the nation was without a fully functioning president.
In his magisterial biography, historian August Heckscher wrote that warning signs had preceded Wilson’s collapse for decades. As early as 1896, he had endured episodes of “neuralgia,” and in 1906, he suffered a stroke that left him nearly blind in one eye. In the run-up to the final sequence of strokes that felled him, he was hit with a series of transient ischemic attacks (mini-strokes).
Because there is archival film footage of Wilson’s presidency, there is a tendency to think of his tenure as a genuinely modern presidency. Yet this was hardly the case. The first transcontinental telephone call was made in 1915; it was not until 1920 that the first commercial broadcast radio station went on air (in Pittsburgh). Actual nationwide broadcast radio made FDR the first radio president, yet it was not until 1934 that telephone service reached 50 percent of Americans. And it was not until the presidency of Harry Truman that, in 1948, the first regular over-the-air nationwide broadcast television programs made their debut.
Thus was made possible what amounted to a sub-silent regency on the part of Edith Bolling Galt, the prominent socialite and second wife of Wilson; Wilson’s personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty; and the president’s physician, Dr. Cary Grayson. A few Cabinet members knew —notably, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who confronted Tumulty and Grayson the day after the president’s massive stroke. He told them that the vice president should step in, per the Constitution’s 12th Amendment — “in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the president” — given Wilson’s manifest inability to carry on. Asked by Tumulty, who would decide Wilson’s inability, Lansing replied that Tumulty and Grayson should do so. Tumulty and Grayson adamantly refused. By October 4, Grayson had concluded that Wilson would never recover. Heckscher wrote, “Thus begun, with the silent ascent of some, and the active maneuvering of others, such a coverup as American history had not known before.”
Vice President Alfred Marshall, whom Wilson thought “a small-calibre man,” was kept in the dark. For his part, Marshall was in no mood to accept designation as acting president, fearful of the first lady. Reputedly he said, “I am not going to get myself entangled with Mrs. Wilson.” Lansing, for his part, convened the Cabinet some 20 times during the worst months of Wilson’s illness, to make essential decisions before Wilson’s minimal — more accurately, pseudo — recovery.
Warren Harding was stricken in late July 1923 while on tour, succumbing to cerebral thrombosis (blood clot) on August 2, and was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge.
Fast forward to 1945. FDR traveled some 5,300 miles each way to an arduous February summit in Yalta and had a week-long summit meeting with Stalin and Churchill sandwiched in between. While he was taking much-needed rest at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, after his journeying, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 12. FDR’s physicians had examined him in early 1944 and realized he was gravely ill, but the diagnosis was not even shared with FDR’s family.
Dwight Eisenhower’s eight years were marked by three notable health crises in his second term. “Ike” had a heart attack in late September 1955 and could not meet with his Cabinet for two months. He did not fully recover until mid-January 1956. That June, Ike had surgery to remove an obstruction in his intestine. It was two months before he could resume a full schedule. In late November 1957, Ike had a minor stroke that left him with difficulty speaking, but he was back at work within a week.
Two days into this last ordeal, Ike told his inner circle, “If I cannot attend to my duties, I am simply going to give up this job. Now, that is all there is to it.” Top Eisenhower aide Sherman Adams then alerted Vice President Richard Nixon that he might become president in 24 hours. The popular Ike finished his second term, but unbeknownst to all at the time, the American — and world — stage was set for the political shock of a lifetime.
America weathered major presidential health crises several times by narrow margins, albeit not without key business at times being delayed or not done at all. But then came November 22, 1963, and America’s lucky streak ended on a scorching day in Dallas. The impact upon the American polity was captured in an exchange between Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She recalled saying to Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, “We will never laugh again.” Moynihan replied, “Mary, we’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.”
Part II on this complex subject will begin with the calamitous JFK assassination, and end with the 1967 ratification of the 25th Amendment
John Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, Second edition 2014).