In Loco Presidentis: Who's In Charge Here?

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

You probably wouldn’t let the unconscious, anesthetized,  or generally incapacitated mind the store, but  would you let them mind the country?

It seems like a necessary and not terribly difficult thing to do—make sure someone is always running the country. But it took U.S. lawmakers nearly 200 years to get most of the kinks out of the presidential succession process. Not until the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 was the procedure for replacing an incapacitated president clarified. So what happened before that? Well, the government sort of made things up as it went along.


The first real test of the succession process came when William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. After delivering his inauguration speech in cold, windy weather without an over-coat, Harrison caught a cold that quickly turned into pneumonia. Within a month he was dead.

The Constitution said that given the president's death, his powers and duties should go to the vice president, who at that time was John Tyler. But not everyone was sure that Tyler actually became president. While he might have the president’s powers and duties, was it really the same thing as being president? Wasn’t he only acting, so to speak? Tyler didn’t think so. He quickly had himself sworn in as president and even gave an inauguration speech at the ceremony.

Congress decided not to argue the point, which was almost as good as giving Tyler a nod of approval. Of course, not everyone was pleased with the "decision"; some dubbed Tyler His Accidency through his term of office. Tyler selected no one to be his vice president, so if he happened to kick the bucket or get kicked out of office, Congress would have to elect his successor to serve until the next presidential election. But every vice president since Tyler who has come to power via a death in office has been perfunctorily sworn into the office of president.


The next important question of succession: What happens if a president becomes unable to carry out his duties? James Garfield spent 79 days hovering between life and death after he was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet, but presidential powers never transferred during that time. Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke with over a year left in his second term. His condition was kept secret as he remained in virtual seclusion afterward, with his wife taking over the duty of communicating his wishes to the outside world. But this may have been for the best. Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, not a well-known statesman, was best known for a remark he made during the speech of a long-winded senator talking about the needs of the country. Marshall commented loudly enough to be heard by everyone: “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

The main reason that Garfield and Wilson remained in power during these times was that there was nothing that compelled the vice president to surrender his powers if and when the president recovered. It took a long time to fix this problem, but in 1965 Congress passed the 25th Amendment, which was ratified by the states two years later. Now there was finally a mechanism for the president to declare himself unable to serve and to later resume his powers by declaring himself capable again. If the president were to fall into a coma and unable to transfer power, then the vice president and a majority of the executive department heads can do it for him; when the chief recovers, then he gets his powers back.


Finally, there would be somebody to mind the store. This should have made Americans rest a little easier when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981—except the 25th Amendment wasn’t invoked in this case. In surgery, under anesthesia, and in critical condition, Reagan was clearly unable to exercise his powers and duties. Vice President George H. W. Bush was away in Texas, which left the White House in a state of confusion as it waited for Bush’s flight to arrive in D.C.

Reagan’s top presidential advisers held a chaotic meeting in the White House Situation Room immediately after the incident. There was the question of who was in charge prior to Bush’s arrival. Secretary of State Alexander Haig seized the reins in the Situation Room meeting, saying, “The helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” Former national security advisor Richard Allen later wrote that despite knowing that there were constitutionally two other people (the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate) ahead of the secretary of state in the line of succession, no one argued with Haig.

Perhaps Haig wishes someone had reminded him of the correct order of succession, especially before he talked to the press. After the Situation Room meeting, Haig spoke at a hurriedly convened White House press conference where he assured the press that he was in charge: “I am in control here.” Those five little words guaranteed Haig a lifetime of infamy as the secretary of state who hadn’t remembered his civics lessons.


So if Haig wasn’t actually in charge, then who was? Basically, for a short period of time, no one was in charge of the United States. Power never officially transferred to anybody. Pundits have speculated that Reagan’s aides were afraid that an official transfer of power to the vice president would only feed a sense of panic about the president’s chances of survival. They believed that citizens would feel safer with no one officially at the helm instead of a temporary transfer of presidential powers to Vice President Bush. Interesting logic, wouldn't you say?

Oddly enough, in 1985, Bush did become the first acting president during a much less turbulent time. Reagan needed surgery to remove a cancerous polyp in his intestine. He signed over the presidential powers to Vice President Bush for about eight hours on July 13, 1985. When he came to, Reagan reclaimed his duties. Bush would just have to wait until 1989 to get them back.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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