In the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the nation soon asked questions about the presidency. Questions arose about what would have happened if Kennedy had somehow survived but with a severe brain injury or surviving only on life support systems beginning to become available at the time. Vice President Lyndon Johnson had now become president, and he discussed these concerns with aides and members of Congress. The result was a new amendment to the Constitution.
Including the murder of Kennedy, eight presidents had died in office. Seven vice presidents had died in office, and one had resigned up to 1964. In spite of these circumstances, the Constitution never made clear what would happen if the presidency became vacant, simply stating that the vice president would assume the duties of the president, not necessarily becoming president. And the vice presidency itself would remain vacant until a new one was elected.
Other scenarios prompted questions as to what would happen if a president were somehow physically incapacitated or mentally or psychologically unable to serve. When President Woodrow Wilson had a massive stroke in 1919, he was initially left mostly paralyzed and almost completely uncommunicative for days before he began to recover. Even the most modest medical techniques to treat stroke patients were still decades away. Vice President Thomas Marshall refused to assume the duties of the presidency while Wilson convalesced, fearing the dangerous precedent it could set as the Constitution provided no guidance for such a situation. Wilson never fully recovered.
Sometimes the vice presidents themselves posed special problems. Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel and faced murder charges in New York and New Jersey. Vice Presidents Daniel Tompkins and Andrew Johnson were both alcoholics. Johnson appeared at his own inauguration as vice president in 1865 completely drunk.
President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack in 1956 that left him incapacitated for several weeks. The tensions of the Cold War only emphasized the need for president being able to make difficult decisions without delay.
When Johnson delivered his State of the Union Address in January 1964, the image was striking: the next two men in line to the presidency were Senate President pro tem Carl Hayden, the 86-year-old veteran Arizona senator, and House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, age 72. There was no vice president sitting behind him as the position had been vacant since Johnson, who himself had a heart attack years before, became president two months earlier.
Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and Rep. Emmanuel Celler of New York introduced an amendment in 1965. What became the 25th Amendment enshrined into the Constitution that the vice president would become the president in power and name if the presidency was vacated. The vice presidency would be filled by a nomination made by the president and approved by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. The president can voluntarily sign over his duties temporarily to the vice president as acting president in a letter to Congress.
However, the vice president and a majority of the presidential cabinet (now numbering 15) may inform Congress that the president cannot perform his duties, and the vice president immediately becomes acting president. However, if a dispute ever arose between the president and his cabinet over his disability, the president can report to Congress that no disability exists and remain president. If the cabinet persists, then Congress settles the matter and must vote within 21 days whether the president is fit.
The House passed the final version by a voice vote on June 30. On July 6, the Senate voted to approve it. The vote was split among Texas’s two U. S. Senators. Democrat Ralph Yarbrough voted in favor of it, while Republican John Tower was one of only five to vote against it. The issue hit especially close to Yarbrough since he had been in the same motorcade with Kennedy on that day in 1963.
Nevada became the 38th state to ratify the amendment on Feb. 10, 1967. Forty-seven states would ratify it. In spite of the support of the state’s political heavy-hitters supporting the amendment, Texas was one of the last states to ratify the amendment. Because of the state’s biennial legislative sessions, the state legislature was out of session when Congress passed the amendment in the summer of 1965 and throughout 1966. Because of its position on the legislative calendar for the 1967 session, it was not ratified until April 25, becoming the next-to-last state to ratify it.
Within the next few decades, the amendment would be invoked on several occasions. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 following a conviction on income tax evasion charges. President Richard Nixon selected Congressman Gerald Ford to be the new vice president. Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, making Ford the new president. Ford then chose former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president, which was quickly approved by Congress. When President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery in 1985, Vice President George Bush became acting president while Reagan was under anesthesia.
Questions, however, still persist about how the amendment should be used, especially if presidents should fall prey to illness that very gradually robbed them of their reasoning abilities or a mental illness.
Ken Bridges is a historian, writer and native Texan. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.