Voice of the White House January 5, 2006

“I have said for some time, and most sensible (non-Republican) readers agree, that the government keeps a number of academics and media people around to assist them in their schemings. Today, we saw on the editorial page of the New York Times, an op-ed piece by one James MacGregor Burns

Burns, loudly extolling the removal of the 22nd Constitutional Amendment mandating only two terms for an American president.

The current Republicans, now in growing disarray, introduced this fascistic idea in February of 2005 but it quietly died as had many other such attempts before it. With Bush and Cheney thwarted in their attempts to establish an Imperial Presidency wherein the occupant of the Oval Office can do no wrong and can easily bypass Congress and rule by decree, we are hearing manic rumblings from the far right about permitting Bush to run for re-election by removing the most inconvenient 22nd Amendment.

The article I refer to, which I am attaching, was written by one James MacGregor Burns, a fanatical follower of and supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt who would still be in office if he had not very conveniently died in 1945. Burns, who may be excused for his strange support for a right wing attempt to sieze the White House in perpetuity because of his extreme age and obvious loss of common sense, has suddenly swung away from his very liberal previous positions as a staunch Rooseveltian Democrat and now advocates what Congress determined was sufficient time in office to make or break.

Were George W. Bush a noteworthy President, Burns’ enthusiasm for his continued reign could be understood but in light of Bush’s dangerous incompetence, either Burns is so advanced in the debilitating effects of old age (he is in his late 80s) or has been made an offer he cannot refuse.

Two terms is entirely enough for anyone, especially for the incumbent.

Burns and his co-worker would be better off writing about Thomas Jefferson or perhaps preparing a touching memoir about his long days journey into night.”

No More Second-Term Blues
by James MacGregor Burhs and Susan Dunn – January 6, 2006

As George W. Bush’s leadership flounders a little more than a year after his re-election, we are seeing a return of an old affliction in American politics, “second termitis.” The protracted woes of Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra affair, and Bill Clinton’s impeachment were all, in part, manifestations of that malady.

Is there some human failing that affects second-term presidents, like arrogance or sheer fatigue? To some degree, perhaps. But the main problem is not personal but institutional – or rather constitutional, as embodied by the 22nd Amendment limiting presidential tenure.

A second-term president will, in effect, automatically be fired within four years. Inevitably his influence over Congress, and even his authority over the sprawling executive branch, weaken. His party leadership frays as presidential hopefuls carve out their own constituencies for the next election. Whether the president is trying to tamp down scandal or push legislation, he loses his ability to set the agenda.

But whether or not a president has a diminished second term, the amendment barring a third term presents the broader and more serious question of his accountability to the people.

While political commentators analyze every twist in White House politics, while citizens follow dramatic stories of leaks, investigations and indictments, the one person who does not have to care is George W. Bush. In a sense, he has transcended the risks and rewards of American politics. He will not run again for office. The voters will not be able to thank him – or dump him.

And yet accountability to the people is at the heart of a democratic system.

There was nothing in the original Constitution of 1787 that barred a third or fourth term for presidents. That was why Franklin Delano Roosevelt could run again in 1940 and 1944, becoming the only president to serve more than two terms. And that was why, three years later, in 1947, after sporadic public debate, Republicans demanded presidential term limits and changed the Constitution.

With majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans, joined by Southern Democrats opposed to the New Deal, were able to push the 22nd Amendment through the House (after only two hours of debate!) and the Senate (after five days of debate). At the time, an amendment limiting presidents to two terms in office seemed an effective way to invalidate Roosevelt’s legacy, to discredit this most progressive of presidents. In the House, one of the few Northern Democrats to vote with the majority was freshman representative John F. Kennedy, whose father had fallen out with Roosevelt. In the spring of 1947, as the historian David Kyvig noted, 18 state legislatures rushed to ratify the amendment, with virtually no public participation in the debate. By 1951, the required three-fourths of the state legislatures had ratified it.

While George Washington limited himself to two terms, it had never been his intention to create a precedent. Washington didn’t want to die in office and have the succession appear “monarchical.” But his primary reason for retiring was simply that after a lifetime of public service, he was bone-tired, desperate to return to the tranquillity of Mount Vernon.

Washington’s close confidant Alexander Hamilton also had firmly opposed presidential term limits. In Federalist No. 72, Hamilton argued that term limits for the chief executive would diminish inducements to good behavior, discourage presidents from undertaking bold new projects, deny the nation the advantage of his experience and threaten political stability. For his part, Washington added that term limits would exclude from the presidency a man whose leadership might be essential in a time of emergency.

Should presidents – whether George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton – be denied the opportunity to serve their country and carry through their programs? Should they be allowed to govern without any accountability to voters? Should voters be denied two supreme powers – the right to give popular presidents more terms in office and to repudiate a failed president at the polls? “We ought to take a serious look and see if we haven’t interfered with the democratic rights of the people,” Ronald Reagan said in 1986.

Some defenders of the 22nd Amendment might argue that an incumbent second-term president would have an even more formidable and undeserved advantage in recognition, experience and the prestige of his office today than in the 1940’s. But the power of incumbency may actually decrease with time. After his landslide victory for a second term in 1936, Roosevelt saw his popular vote drop in 1940 and even more in 1944.

And what about an unfair head start in campaign fund-raising? Presidential incumbents already have a significant advantage, but not necessarily an overwhelming one, especially with campaign finance reform. In a democratic republic, only the Constitution should trump the will of the majority, not the economic vicissitudes of the campaign trail.

Since 1956, many bipartisan resolutions to repeal the 22nd Amendment have been submitted to Congress – and gone nowhere. The most recent one to be buried in a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was proposed last February. Oddly, both the current chairman of that committee, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, and the former chairman, Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, both Republicans, have in the past co-sponsored resolutions to repeal the amendment.

Hasn’t the time come for Congress and the voters to revoke an authoritarian, barely considered amendment? Republicans, who revere “original intent” in interpreting the Constitution and who applaud the rise of the conservative movement, should welcome the possibility of a three- or four-term Republican president, thus avoiding “second termitis.”

And Democrats, as they contemplate the century that lies ahead, can hope that in another world crisis, this misbegotten amendment will not be there to bar a future Franklin Roosevelt from offering the kind of leadership that he provided in the 1940’s.

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn teach at Williams College and are the authors of “George Washington” and “The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America.”


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