Fletcher Kneble was a Washington journalist, columnist and novelist. He is probably best known for his novel, “Seven Days in May,” which was made into a film of the same name. He also published, in 1965, a novel entitled “Night of Camp David.” It was in that year that a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification.
The states approved the amendment, and, in 1967, it became a part of the Constitution. That amendment, the Twenty-Fifth, is at the heart of Kneble’s novel, and it seems likely that the national discussion of it in 1965 led him to write the work.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment has, for the past several years, been a topic of discussion in the national press because it deals with what the federal government can do if a president of the United States is, for whatever reason, unable to discharge his or her duties as president. Many Americans feel that President Donald Trump is a case in point.
The original Constitution addresses a president’s incapacity, but says only that in the case of the president’s “Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the… office,” the Vice President shall take charge, and that the Congress “may by law provide for the Case” of both President and Vice President experiencing one of those three circumstances, and “declare what Officer shall then act as president…until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment provides considerably more guidance. It deals with straightforward cases in which the President resigns or dies or is impeached and convicted; and cases in which the President is injured or ill or undergoes surgery and voluntarily turns over his or her authority to the Vice President and then retrieves it when able.
It also, in section 4, deals with more difficult cases in which the Vice President and others judge that the President is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of this office” and notify the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of that fact, whereupon the Vice President then assumes the role of “Acting President.” Who are those “others”? Either “the principle officers of the executive departments,” which would seem to mean the Cabinet, or “such other body as Congress may by law provide.”
But in such cases, the President may subsequently declare to the President of the Senate and the Speaker that he or she is not, in fact, unable to exercise his or her authority. Then he or she will resume the office unless the Vice President and those “others” again convey to the Senate and House their opinion that the president is unable to do so. If they do that, the dispute will be decided by votes in the Senate and House. If two-thirds of both houses agree with the Vice President and the others, the Vice President will continue as Acting President; if not, the President will re-assume his or her office.
Kneble’s novel deals with a case in which a junior senator from Iowa is summoned to Camp David by the president late at night to discuss the senator’s possible selection as a vice presidential candidate in the president’s bid for re-election. During the meeting the president lapses occasionally into strange behavior that the senator comes to realize is delusional and paranoid. The president speaks fervently of conspiracies to defeat him, and outlines a bizarre plan to create a new nation combining the U.S., Canada and the Scandinavian countries.
All this happens in chapter one of Kneble’s book. The rest of the novel concerns itself with the senator’s efforts to convince others that the president is mentally ill. Most people don’t believe him because, most of the time, the president behaves normally, and, after all, most presidents are a bit odd. Nonetheless, the senator and those few friends who believe him continue to try to engineer a consensus of important people who can bring about the events described in the 25th amendment. They are driven by the fear that if the president isn’t stopped he will do something catastrophic. I won’t reveal what happens, in case you decide to get hold of a copy of Kneble’s book.
The lesson of the novel is that utilizing the 25th amendment to unseat a president is an extremely challenging task. The amendment offers no guidance regarding what constitutes an “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office.” Though surely mental illness would count as disabling, how serious must it be? Is an evident narcissistic personality disorder sufficient? Given Trump’s hand-picked and loyal cabinet, would anything short of full-blown schizophrenia do the trick? And, at present, is a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate even conceivable?
Fortunately for us, impeachment seems a far easier path to take. The emerging picture of Trump’s financial crimes and entanglements with Russian oligarchs, as well as his evident obstruction of justice, seems more than sufficient to convict him, at least once Republicans come to regard him as a liability in their own efforts for re-election.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.