Speech delivered at Lucky Pierre’s America/N Constitutional Amendment Show at Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago
November 6, 2012 (Election Night)
(This performance was part of a 13-hour event featuring performers, social activists and legal experts—each assigned to interpret a specific amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I was chosen for the 25th amendment.)
For those of you who have just joined us at America/N tonight, we’ve reached that moment in the proceedings where we contemplate the 25th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is the one that covers PRESIDENTIAL VACANCY, DISABILITY AND INABILITY. It’s really quite an amendment… an amendment that speaks to my heart on so many many levels.
It’s organized into 3 sections, and first section which is deceptively simple:
In the case of the removal of the President from office or his death or resignation, the Vice President, shall become President.
So there’s a certain logic to this that even I, a C-minus student in political science, can understand. I mean why would you need a vice president for anything else? I always thought, that’s what they’re there for. Surely there must be more to this amendment than that?
And yes, there is more to it. Just today, I learned about this added component today when I looked it up on Wikipeida:
In the event of resignation, the vice president would assume the title of and position of president—not acting president—effectively prohibiting the departing president from returning to office.
Does this mean that in the olden days, before this amendment was adopted, the vice president was a mere actor playing the role of president, sort of a pretend president whose act was over when the non-acting president returned to power?
So I re-read it again and again. But the more effort I put into trying to make sense of it, the more impenetrable it becomes. Which isn’t really all that different than my first experience trying to make sense of the LAW, which was, of course, the 10 Commandments.
As an example, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to decipher 1st commandment.
You shall have no other gods before me.
If I just skim these 7 words (as I did with section 1 of the 25th amendment), it makes perfect sense, but upon further reflection, that’s where I get into trouble, that’s where I hit my wall. To begin with, I’m just going to assume that the narrator is male because there’s this certain aggressive energy and a defensiveness that I think is really just a mask of insecurity I automatically associate with males because most of the people I’ve met who share those qualities happen to be men.
I know this is not exclusive to men, but this has just been my experience in life thus far, which I’ll admit, has been pretty limited. Anyway, for the purpose of this discussion, I hope you do not mind if I refer to the narrator as a him.
So, when the narrator instructs me not to worship other gods before him, that word, BEFORE, confuses me the most. I mean, does he mean BEFORE in the chronological sense? Like, would this mean that it was fine for me to consider the magnolia tree in my backyard as my god BEFORE I had read this commandment, but now that I’ve read it, it might be wise for me to tone things down and consider the magnolia tree simply as my friend? Am I reading this correctly?
OR maybe our narrator uses the word BEFORE in a more spatial sense? Like if I’m standing BEFORE a wall as opposed to standing BEHIND it. OR, say for example, right here in this room, if there are some of you who are here before me and if there are some of you who are there behind me, how would I know who among you are gods or not gods? It’s a slippery slope.
And then I realize I haven’t even considered your perspective… I’ve been so caught up in my own narrow ruminations upon this commandment that I haven’t taken one second to consider that—from your angle—it is I who am standing before YOU. And so how would YOU know for certain that I am not one of your gods? Maybe this commandment is not at all about me.
Perhaps it might be wise for us to stop thinking about it and stop worrying about the consequences. Especially since we’re all more or less in the same boat on this one. Especially since we still have 9 more commandments to go. And I’ve been up here speaking to you (not before you) for … for I’m guessing for about the better part of 3 hours now and I have yet to draw a single parallel to the 25th amendment.
But before I get into all that, I imagine you might be thinking of me as somebody who is easily mystified by legal jargon. I would have to agree, especially in situations where I just have too much going on. It doesn’t take very much to overwhelm me when I’m confronted with too many words…. which has been the case while I’ve been researching my topic for tonight.
I have to tell you that I’ve been really distracted and I haven’t made nearly as much progress on this as I would have liked. Now, I’m not using this as an excuse but I DO have this minor surgery coming up in 2 weeks, I can assure you that it’s minor, but I will have to stay in the hospital for one night following the surgery for observation. SO, I’ve been dealing with my health insurance company, trying to make sure that they’ll cover this…. and they told me that yes, they WILL cover me up for up to 23 hours of observation in the hospital with no requirement for pre-authorization, but that they DO require a separate pre-authorization for admission into the hospital.
So I’m talking to the customer service representative on the phone, trying to make sense of all of this, and I said “wait, if I’m already physically in the hospital for this surgery that you’ve already approved, would that not imply that you’ve already authorized me for admission?” This was met with an awkward silence. And I thought maybe I should paraphrase this…. So I said, “Does this mean that technically it is possible for the hospital to perform surgery on a patient who has not been admitted? Would that mean they could do the surgery anywhere outside the hospital, maybe in the visitors parking lot or the Starbucks across the street? And what would happen if the lot was already full and the Starbucks was closed?”
At which point, the customer service representative and I both agreed that now might be a good time to take a little break and perhaps we could re-visit our discussion after lunch. And then she said she could tell I am “the type of person who is easily confounded by language.” And then she said, “that doesn’t mean I don’t think you are a bright person. I just think you sometimes take things way too literally.”
So when my kind friends in Lucky Pierre invited me to do a presentation at this incredible event, I wanted to tell them, I’m sorry but you have totally invited the wrong person. Surely you have mistaken me for another. Actually, I think that is what I literally did tell them. But Lucky Pierre said, hey, don’t stress about it. And I wanted to tell them.. well, OK. Now THAT would be a first. But then I thought, gosh, that sounds pretty sarcastic and not at all appreciative. Don’t say that. Don’t even think about saying that.
Just try to focus. Breathe and focus. Try to gather yourself and think about little things in the 25th amendment that might resonate with your life … such as that curious detail in the 4th section where the vice president is no longer considered to be the acting president, and the departing president is barred from returning to office. Where did that come from? What could have been the context? I don’t think there was any precedent.
Prior to the passage of this amendment nine presidents experienced health crisis that left them temporarily incapacitated, with death resulting in 6 cases. But, this particular portion of the 25th amendment has never actually been invoked. Which leads me to wonder if the 25th might be the most neurotic amendment of the constitution?
It’s obvious that the people who drafted this amendment were worriers, constant chronic worriers. So they felt obliged to write an amendment that would address every conceivable what-if scenario, which is what happens to people whose worries escalate into catastrophic thinking, a common indicator for a condition known as generalized anxiety disorder.
One case study of this disorder was presented in a seminal article, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Constitutional Studies. In this study, political scientists observed legislators as they worked to enact what would become the 25th amendment. They came to the conclusion that this amendment could only be a consequence of catastrophic thinking, as evident in the 4th section of the amendment:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
As an illustration, the legislators presented the scientists with what can only be considered a series of what-if scenarios.
What if after only a few weeks since taking the oath of office, the president quickly falls behind in dealing with economic crisis, diplomatic crisis, cabinet appointments, drone strikes, resolutions… he sits there completely paralyzed by this insurmountable pile of documents awaiting his review and approval? But the longer he waits, the more insurmountable the pile grows … until the president is stricken by a significantly severe anxiety attack.
What if the president then cradles his face in the palms of his hands as he weeps… “I JUST CAN’T DO THIS. This isn’t fair to me and it’s not fair to anyone else… and if I don’t tell them now, things will only get worse. It’s time for me to accept that I have a disability that renders me unable to discharge the duties and powers of my office. I hereby submit my formal resignation”?
And what if, after a 80 days in seclusion, the emotional trauma of the president begins to recede? And as he follows the actions of the vice president and his cabinet appointees in the media, he then realizes that the job isn’t nearly as complicated as he had imagined. “I think I can handle this now,” he admits to himself.
What if he finds a tactful way to confide in the vice president, and speaking from the heart, he reveals to the vice president his embarrassment about panicking at that one moment, 80 days ago? But that was an isolated moment that will never happen again… and he is really doing much better now. He’d like to return to work at the earliest opportunity.
And what if the vice president said, “It makes me happy to hear you’re doing better, but we sort of had to move on. It was really hard, but we found a way to cope without you. And now you suddenly come back—unannounced-begging, pleading for us to take you back. We’re sorry, but this time, it’s just not going to work. You can’t have it both ways”?
And what if the president just starts showing up in the situation room, at state dinners, NATO summits, awards ceremonies, hoping to catch the vice president’s eye as he cheerfully glad-hands with everyone in sight? Really making an effort to show the vice president how much better he’s doing now. He feels really self-conscious and maybe even duplicitous in behaving in this way. But maybe just maybe, this will open the vice president’s heart, just a wee bit.
But what if this doesn’t work, and the vice president eventually confronts the president, attempting to diffuse the situation, and tells him “Look I can see how much better you’re doing and I really appreciate just how hard you are trying. I know you are trying really really hard. But this is hard for me too. And I just can’t live like this anymore.”
And what if this only invokes the president’s ire and he scornfully tells the Vice President, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s really your decision to make. You’re just an acting president to me, You’ve always been an acting president to me, and you’re not even a good act. And there isn’t a soul who can’t see right through you.”
And what if the vice-president becomes so consumed with resentment and hurt and guilt that he’s unable to perform his duties. And this just eats away at him. Day after day. He can’t sleep. He can’t focus. He has a sudden loss of appetite. He loses interest in the things he once enjoyed the most. He has no idea who to turn to, and no one, not even the acting first lady can get through to him.
And the government grinds to a complete standstill.
The study concludes that the 25th amendment is simply a symptomatic manifestation of a chronic, yet treatable disorder, which most fortunately paved the way for the 26th amendment.