By Robert P. Hey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
ONCE again the United States faced the prospect this week of having a president physically unable to perform his duties, although in this case only for minutes or hours. Throughout American history there have been dozens of such instances.
Unlike past occasions, this time both the government and the president were fully prepared. Facing a possible medical procedure that would have fully anesthetized him, President Bush signed papers to turn over temporary leadership of the government to Vice President Dan Quayle as acting president. That's what one section of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which took effect 24 years ago, says a president should do when "he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."
The point of the amendment, says Harvard Law School professor and constitutional expert Laurence Tribe, "was to create a crisis-free procedure for the temporary transfer of power." When President Bush signed papers that would have put the transfer into effect once he was under anesthesia, the leadership of government was ready to be smoothly transferred under procedures that were clearly spelled out by the amendment. Mr. Bush "probably set the precedent that other presidents will have to follow," says p olitical scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Six years ago President Ronald Reagan, facing anesthesia and major abdominal surgery, signed a similar authorization for shifting power to his vice president, George Bush. As it turned out the transfer of authority was unneeded this week: President Bush made sufficient recovery from heartbeat irregularity so that physicians decided against the additional procedure.
There have been occasions in American history when presidents were so incapacitated they were virtually unable to act. Some such situations were extended. In 1881 President James Garfield lay near death for 80 days before succumbing to complications from a shot fired by a disappointed office seeker. …