As the nation binges on Season 2 of “House of Cards,” we have witnessed ruthless House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) maneuver for the vice president to resign and for him to be appointed to the position. It’s no spoiler to say that Underwood clearly won’t be content to remain a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But the biggest casualty of “House of Cards” might well turn out to be the 25th Amendment, which governs vice presidential succession. Once again, the amendment has, at least in popular fiction, been transformed from a pragmatic constitutional provision into a Machiavellian route to power. And that’s a shame, because in a real-world time of crisis it could be incredibly valuable -- but only if an ongoing stream of fictional portrayals hasn’t distorted its public image beyond recognition.
The 25th Amendment was enacted in 1967 during the height of the Cold War, at time of hair-trigger tensions and nuclear missiles mounted on fast-flying intercontinental ballistic missiles. The need for near-instantaneous decision making and continuity of the command authority during the Cold War was clear, yet the nation had twice found itself with a vacancy in the vice presidency, for nearly 4 years after Truman succeeded to the top job 1945 and again for over a year after the Kennedy assassination.
This problem was rooted in an oversight of the founders. They had crafted a vice presidency to assume executive authority in the case of the death, resignation, or removal of a president, but had not provided a way to fill the ensuing vice presidential vacancy before the next regularly scheduled general election. As a result, between 1789 and 1967, through a combination of presidential and vice presidential deaths and resignations, the VP slot had been vacant 16 times for some 40 years in total, or nearly 20 percent of American history.
Depending upon the Law of Presidential Succession at the time, the secretary of state or the speaker of the House were bumped up to next in line to the Oval Office. But the former lacked democratic validation, while the latter was not part of the sitting administration, and might even be its vehement political enemy. The 25th Amendment was thus enacted to enable the president to fill a vacancy in the vice president position, subject only to confirmation by simple majorities of both houses of Congress.
On “House of Cards,” Underwood’s machinations have arranged for the unhappy sitting Vice President to step down and for him to be named in his stead, with various types of murder and mayhem enacted along the way. This is a far cry, however, from how the mild-mannered and upstanding Gerald Ford actually found his way to the Oval Office via the 25th Amendment in 1974.
After VP Spiro Agnew was pressured to resign due to bribery charges, Nixon looked around for a harmless placeholder until the 1976 election. Neither he nor his designee,Ford imagined that Nixon would himself likewise be forced from office, following what Ford termed the “long national nightmare” of the Watergate crisis. A longtime member of the House, Ford had never been elected by any constituency larger than the area around Grand Rapids, Michigan, yet he assumed full executive authority, more in sadness than in triumph. Now though, thanks to “House of Cards,” what was then a constitutional lifeline is now best known as a vaguely illegitimate back route to power.
And “House of Cards” is not the only fictional outlet to rough up the 25th Amendment, which includes other provisions addressing another oversight of the founders: what to do about a president who was not dead but was severely incapacitated.
Section 3 of the amendment allows for the president to designate the VP to temporarily become acting president. This can be initiated by a still-conscious president, as has been done three times by presidents who were anesthetized for brief medical procedures. Its intention was for such short-term situations or, even more so, for protracted periods such as following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919 or Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955.
Predictably, though, television took this sober precaution to an outlandish level on the long-running series “The West Wing,” in which the daughter of Democratic President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was, at one point, kidnapped by terrorists. This created an insoluble conflict-of-interest for the president, leading him to invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment and to temporarily step aside. Conveniently, the vice president on the series had also recently resigned. This enabled the next in line, a boorish Republican speaker of the House (John Goodman), to briefly become commander-in-chief and then to play havoc with the administration's policies.
Most controversially, Section 4 of the 25th Amendment enables vice presidents themselves to initiate the power transfer, provided that they have the counter-signatures of a majority of cabinet officials. The single time this provision unambiguously should have been enacted was in 1981 after an assassination attempt left Ronald Reagan unconscious. But a mere three months into their term, Vice President George H.W. Bush was determined not to create even the hint of an unseemly power grab, and never invoked the amendment despite Reagan’s manifest incapacitation. One of the indelible images of that day was mass confusion at the White House and the infamous, and erroneous, declaration by Secretary of State Alexander Haig that he was in charge while Bush was traveling back to DC.
Of course, popular culture has since latched onto this scenario, most famously in the Hollywood movie “Air Force One,” in which the president’s plane has been hijacked with him aboard. Although this was hardly one of the circumstances originally envisioned for the amendment, it undoubtedly applied:the president (Harrison Ford) was the definition of incapacitated while evading terrorists at 35,000 feet. But the vice president (Glenn Close), not wanting to seem disloyal, stalwartly refuses to make the correct choice to temporarily transfer power, despite urging from a cabinet more sensible than herself.
So, what do these fictional scenarios have in common with reality? Not very much. But they do play to an enduring fascination with convoluted Shakespearean scheming to seize the throne, seen in “Macbeth” and “Richard III.” Hopefully, the 25th Amendment will never need to be invoked in such dramatic circumstances. But, the reality is that it could be. And in a moment of crisis and confusion, the perception of order and legitimacy may count for a lot. It certainly won’t help if the public’s most enduring impression of a crucial constitutional mechanism is based on the scheming of Frank Underwood on House of Cards.