Madam President Recommended in the New York Times

Jan 7, 2018 by

Presidential Incapacity: A Holiday Gift Guide – The New York Times
10 hours ago – As recounted in William Hazelgrove’s “Madam President,” Mrs. Wilson stonewalled the government and the electorate for more than a year while her husband “was a paralyzed man …. Sarah Vowell is the author, most recently, of “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” and a contributing opinion writer.
Presidential Incapacity: A Holiday Gift Guide


So you put off your holiday shopping and you and everyone you know forgot to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the increasingly reassuring 25th Amendment? We’ve all been there. Here then, a few last minute book suggestions for the constitutional worrywarts and civic-minded hypochondriacs on your gift list.
• Clarence G. Lasby, “Eisenhower’s Heart Attack”
• Jeffrey Frank, “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage”
• William Hazelgrove, “Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson”
• Birch Bayh, “One Heartbeat Away: Presidential Disability and Succession”
• Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, “Landslide: The Unmaking of the President 1984-1988”

Expecting continuity of government to depend on a gentleman’s agreement with Richard M. Nixon was neither legal nor, in retrospect, judicious. By the time President Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter in 1958 to Vice President Nixon designating him “the individual explicitly and exclusively responsible for determining whether there is any inability of mine that makes it necessary for you to discharge the powers and duties of the presidency,” Eisenhower had already had a heart attack in 1955, abdominal surgery in 1956 and a stroke in 1957.

After the stroke, Jeffrey Frank writes in “Ike and Dick,” Nixon “had heard the president say ‘window’ when he meant to say ‘mirror’ and say ‘ceiling’ when he meant to say ‘floor.’” That would be a worrisome development in any era but was especially vexing in the thermonuclear age.
Mr. Frank explains that an added source of behind-the scenes uncertainty to Eisenhower’s cabinet arose because Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the nephew of Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who had locked horns with the first lady, Edith Wilson, following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919.

As recounted in William Hazelgrove’s “Madam President,” Mrs. Wilson stonewalled the government and the electorate for more than a year while her husband “was a paralyzed man who could barely talk, had lost control of his bodily functions, and lived in post-stroke twilight,” fending off his night terrors shining a flashlight at a portrait of his dead first wife, Ellen. So in the aftermath of Eisenhower’s heart attack, Mr. Frank notes that Dulles queried Nixon “on who was going to do what.”

When the ailing but popular Eisenhower ran for re-election in ’56, his most significant opponent was not Adlai Stevenson but his own body. Clarence G. Lasby supposes in “Eisenhower’s Heart Attack” that “the only way to prove that he was not an invalid was to serve another term.” Grilled at a news conference in 1958 about the constitutionality of his memo to Nixon, Eisenhower said: “I admit this: If a man were so deranged that he thought he was able, and the consensus was that he couldn’t, there would have to be something else done, no question.”
That “something else” is the subject of Birch Bayh’s memoir of “the longest of legislative journeys — the enactment of a constitutional amendment.” The 25th Amendment’s author and shepherd, Bayh became the chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments a few months before the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. After that, Bayh points out, “for the 16th time in our nation’s history, the United States was without a vice president.”
His mission to amend the Constitution to make provisions for appointing a new vice president as well as establishing contingencies for presidential disability gained momentum after Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress on Nov. 27. “During the speech,” Bayh notes, “the television cameras focused repeatedly” on “the two men who were next in line for the presidency” — the 71-year-old speaker of the House and the 86-year-old president pro tempore of the Senate. (One of the inherent pitfalls of a patriarchy is that leaders tend to have the resting heart rate of King Lear.)

During Bayh’s courtesy call on the House speaker, John McCormack, the representative complained that “one of those so-called lady reporters asked me if I felt I was qualified to serve as president.” As a legislator and World War I veteran, McCormack had clocked almost a half-century as a public servant — and still some persnickety dame raised on promises presumed to question whether he was presidential material. The nerve.
“Landslide” by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus is, like Bayh’s book, out of print but well worth tracking down through used-book sellers and libraries. It is a thoroughly reported and riveting account of Ronald Reagan’s second term. A harrowing prologue opens with Jim Cannon, a 69-year-old bureaucrat in pajamas, scanning his bookshelves for his copy of the Constitution and flipping to the 25th Amendment. It was March 1987, and President Reagan’s new chief of staff, Howard Baker, had tasked Cannon and a colleague to interview the White House staff to understand its Iran-contra-era disarray. Various aides shocked Cannon with stories “about how inattentive and inept the president was. He was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job. They said he wouldn’t read the papers they gave him — even short position papers and documents. They said he wouldn’t come over to work — all he wanted to do was to watch movies and television at the residence.”
Presented with these findings, Baker, along with Cannon and other aides, scrutinized Reagan to assess his mental fitness. The president was joking around, having a good day. He impressed his monitors as “alert and attentive” and, as worded in Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, able “to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Though Mr. McManus and Ms. Mayer’s reporting unearthed other senior moments such as the one in which a Reagan crony told them about the president’s forgetting “who he was talking to in the midst of a phone conversation,” their book was published in 1988, six years before the president disclosed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis to the nation.

Eisenhower’s image of a deranged president and the Reagan aides’ description of a scatterbrained boss watching too much TV strikes a chord. The subset of lies told by the current occupant of the Oval Office — descriptions of phone calls with the Mexican president and Boy Scout officials that never took place, a made-up terrorist attack in Sweden that prompted a former Swedish prime minister to ask “What has he been smoking?” — have my inner Jim Cannon repeatedly reaching for my 95-cent copy of the Constitution and paging to Amendment 25.
Are such falsehoods mere fibs? Or do they bring to light an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality? Which, incidentally, happens to be the legal definition of insanity.
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Born in Richmond, Virginia, and carted back and forth between Virginia and Baltimore, I blame my rootless, restless personality on my father. He was and is a traveling salesman with a keen gift of gab, great wit, a ready joke, and could sell white tennis shoes to coal miners. [read more...]

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