A Brief History of Acting U.S. Presidents and What Colons Have to Do With It

California needs acting governors whenever the real one leaves the state. The U.S. has only needed acting presidents when the real ones get colonoscopies.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
July 28, 2014, 11:20 a.m.

This week, Cali­for­nia will have four dif­fer­ent gov­ernors in four days.

Per the state con­sti­tu­tion, when the gov­ernor leaves the state for work or per­son­al busi­ness, someone has to fill in as act­ing gov­ernor. But Gov. Jerry Brown isn’t the only top of­fi­cial leav­ing the state this week — the lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor and the state Sen­ate pres­id­ent pro tem are trav­el­ing too. Both of them will have a turn as act­ing gov­ernor be­fore they leave, when the job will fall to Cali­for­nia’s As­sembly speak­er for nine hours, be­fore Brown re­turns.

While Joe Biden doesn’t as­sume pres­id­en­tial au­thor­ity every time Pres­id­ent Obama leaves the coun­try, there is pre­ced­ent for turn­ing the White House over to an act­ing pres­id­ent. The 25th Amend­ment grants the vice pres­id­ent and Cab­in­et mem­bers the power to de­clare a pres­id­ent dis­abled, trans­fer­ring pres­id­en­tial re­spons­ib­il­it­ies to the vice pres­id­ent. It also al­lows the pres­id­ent to de­clare him­self tem­por­ar­ily un­able to per­form his du­ties. This last pro­vi­sion has been in­voked by only three pres­id­ents in Amer­ic­an his­tory — all of whom did so be­cause of their large in­test­ine.

On Ju­ly 13, 1985, George H.W. Bush served as act­ing pres­id­ent for about eight hours while Ron­ald Re­agan had sur­gery to re­move can­cer­ous polyps from his colon. (After all, be­ing the pres­id­ent is kind of dif­fi­cult when you’re un­der an­es­thesia.) On June 29, 2002, Dick Cheney served as act­ing pres­id­ent for two hours while George W. Bush un­der­went a colono­scopy. The pro­ced­ure took place just nine months after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, and Bush told re­port­ers that he wanted to be “su­per cau­tious.” An­oth­er colono­scopy five years later made Cheney act­ing pres­id­ent again for two hours.

Act­ing pres­id­ents can do a whole lot without ac­tu­ally hold­ing the of­fice of the pres­id­ent. Aside from the usu­al “powers and du­ties” giv­en to the pres­id­ent un­der Art­icle II of the Con­sti­tu­tion, act­ing pres­id­ents can sign bills in­to law or ask Con­gress to de­clare war.

The concept of an act­ing pres­id­ent is fairly new in the na­tion’s his­tory. Be­fore the 25th Amend­ment was rat­i­fied in 1967, a leg­al frame­work for tem­por­ary trans­fers of power didn’t ex­ist. Un­til the middle of the 20th cen­tury, pres­id­ents who, by today’s stand­ards, would be con­sidered un­able to do their jobs at one point or an­oth­er did not see ma­jor lapses in health as a hindrance to gov­ern­ing the na­tion.

When a massive stroke in 1919 left Woo­drow Wilson par­tially para­lyzed on the left side, the pres­id­ent didn’t step down. He in­stead fin­ished out his second term with little time in the pub­lic eye. In 1955, Dwight Eis­en­hower had a heart at­tack and spent sev­en weeks re­cov­er­ing. A year later, he spent six days in the hos­pit­al be­cause of a bowel ob­struc­tion. And a year after that, he suffered a mild stroke. Eis­en­hower main­tained pres­id­en­tial au­thor­ity dur­ing all three situ­ations.

Nowadays, to tem­por­ar­ily trans­fer his con­sti­tu­tion­al powers and du­ties to the vice pres­id­ent, the pres­id­ent must write a let­ter to the House speak­er and the Sen­ate pres­id­ent pro tem­pore. He must also write a second note re­as­sert­ing his power once he can re­turn to of­fice. (Here’s how these dis­charge and re­sump­tion let­ters look.) If Obama were ever to fol­low in Bush’s steps, he would find him­self in a com­ic­al situ­ation: writ­ing about his colon health to the man who’s su­ing him.

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