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August 4, 2021
25th Amendment Implementation, 1973-2021
Part III: The Modern Precedents, which Biden watchers, admirers and non-admirers alike, do need to keep in mind.

(This article first appeared in the American Spectator: https://spectator.org/25th-amendment-implementation-1973-2021/)

By: John Wohlstetter

In Part I, I covered the historical precedents (1789-1960) up to JFK’s tragically short presidency; Part II covered the years 1961-67, featuring the reaction to 1963’s assassination horror, which led to the 1967 ratification of the 25th Amendment. Part III carries the story through Trump. It begins with the serial vice-presidential and presidential vacancy crises of 1973-74. The years following saw several assassination attempts (two in 1975 and one in 1981) and multiple instances since of temporary presidential disability, with at first a reluctance to invoke the 25th Amendment formally, and later a better practice of using the 25th to cover temporary instances of disability.

The Succession Crises of 1973-74

What President Nixon’s press secretary called a “third-rate burglary” was carried out by seven Republican campaign operatives at an office building in the Watergate Complex on June 17, 1972. By the spring of 1973, it had mushroomed into a first-rate campaign finance scandal. The ensuing Senate Watergate Committee hearings had by June of Watergate Summer exposed a second-rate coverup leading to the president’s 1974 resignation. The prelude to that had been the 1973 travails of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who in June 1973 had become a target of a corruption investigation that was to lead to his resignation on October 10. Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to a single count of tax fraud, thus avoiding indictment on charges of conspiracy, extortion, and bribery arising out of public contracts awarded during Agnew’s tenures as county executive and governor.

October 1973 proved fateful not only for Agnew but also for Nixon, who on October 20 made the mistake that doomed his presidency by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox. When both Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who had negotiated Agnew’s plea deal, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused the president’s direct order to fire Cox, Nixon fired both, thus perpetuating what the press nicknamed the “Saturday Night Massacre.” The public outcry forced Nixon to appoint a successor, Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski, who was tactically more skillful than Cox, a law professor. Now Nixon faced not an academic but a savvy trial lawyer, a bad trade.

October 1973 also saw two tectonic events overseas that could have proved highly destabilizing had the 25th Amendment not been in place: the Yom Kippur War and, in its midst, the Arab oil embargo. The former led to a nuclear alert for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis; the latter triggered the skyrocketing oil prices that caused significant recessions in 1973 and 1979 and transferred trillions to sheikdoms, with billions invested to finance transnational terrorism. Nixon’s decision to nominate Gerald Ford minority leader of the House was widely praised on both sides of the aisle. Ford’s nomination was confirmed in 57 days.

The second succession crisis came in 1974, as the impeachment proceedings headed to a climax — Impeachment Summer. The final week of July was to prove the president’s Waterloo. On July 24 in U.S. v. Nixon, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that a president’s claim of executive privilege must yield to a subpoena of evidence pertaining to a specific criminal case; William Rehnquist, then an associate justice, recused himself, having provided legal advice to attorney general John Mitchell, a Watergate target.

On July 30, the House Judiciary Committee had sent three articles of impeachment to the House:

  • Obstruction of justice
  • Abuse of presidential power
  • Defiance of a lawful subpoena for taped White House conversations pertinent to the Watergate coverup

Public disclosure of a taped conversation in which Nixon had ordered the FBI director to curtail the bureau’s investigation of certain Watergate matters led a delegation of senior GOP leaders to visit the president. They told him that the full House would surely impeach him and that enough Republican senators would cross the aisle and vote to convict in the ensuing Senate trial. On August 8, the president addressed the nation; on August 9, he resigned, and Ford was sworn in. To succeed him as vice president, Ford nominated former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller on August 20; on December 9, the House-Senate voted 90-7 (93 percent) to confirm, and on December 19, the House voted in favor, 287-128 (69 percent). On September 8, Ford pardoned Nixon, who otherwise would have been indicted; the decision angered millions and was a significant factor in Ford’s losing the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter. Rockefeller’s path from nomination to confirmation took 121 days, more than twice that for Ford.

Near Misses (1975, 1981, and 1998-99)

In 1975, two would-be assassins tried to shoot President Ford. One, Sara Jane Moore, fired her .30 caliber handgun at a 40-foot range, narrowly missing the president; her second attempt was deflected before she could fire by an alert bystander. Incredibly, Moore had been arrested the day before for illegal handgun possession but was immediately released. The other, Lynette (“Squeaky”) Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson “family” albeit not implicated in any of the cult’s murders, tried to shoot Ford with a .45 caliber handgun at point-blank range and pulled the trigger but the chamber was empty; she was grabbed by a Secret Service agent, convicted of attempted assassination, and sentenced to life, but paroled in 2009. (Bonus — NOT making this up: As a child, Fromme was part of a dance group that appeared on The Lawrence Welk Show and . . . at the White House)

Ronald Reagan had an even closer call, having actually been shot. The whole story is told in Del Quentin Wilber’s 2011 book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. (“Rawhide” was Reagan’s secret service code name.) On March 30, John Hinckley, who had become obsessed with assassination after watching the Robert De Niro film Taxi Driver, which featured actress Jodie Foster, on whom he had a crush, decided that he could impress her by assassinating the president. Hinckley stood in a crowd that afternoon and rapidly fired six shots from his .22 revolver as Reagan exited the Washington Hilton Hotel rear entrance after giving a speech to union supporters. One bullet ricocheted off the presidential limousine, another gravely wounded Press Secretary James Brady, and one bullet each struck Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty. Hinckley won acquittal by pleading insanity, which led to a change in the federal insanity defense law. Hinckley also had once been arrested in Nashville — for illegal possession of a firearm — during Jimmy Carter’s term. In 2016, a federal judge ordered Hinckley, then age 61, released, ruling that he was no longer a threat.

Reagan’s survival was miraculous. The bullet was a “Devastator” designed to explode upon impact. The fragmented bullet had entered his lung. Jerry Parr, the secret service agent who had pushed Reagan into the presidential limo and rolled on top of him, noticed as they headed back to the White House — the originally preferred destination for reasons of security, in case other assassins were at large — foamy blood on Reagan’s lips, indicating a punctured lung. Parr immediately ordered the driver to head