Accidental presidents: death, assassination, resignation, and democratic succession.

Author:Abbott, Philip

One of the commonly stated virtues of modern constitutional democracies is their capacity to ensure reliable and accepted methods of political succession through election (Calvert 1987). This essay focuses on one particular, though not uncommon, complication in the democratic mode of political succession: American vice presidents who assume office as a result of the death, assassination, or resignation of a president. To date, nine presidents (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ford) have assumed office in this manner. "Accidental presidents" are a prime illustration of the intricate process of succession because their irregular nature clarifies and highlights patterns of legitimacy that are less visible in other contexts. Without assuming office through direct election, these presidents must find ways to replicate what Bertrand de Jouvenal has identified as the twin aspects of political authority. According to de Jouvenal, the roles of "rex" and "dux," the stabilizer and the initiator, are essential to governance. The role of rex thus emphasizes the continuity of the political order and that of dux its capacity to respond to change. Without dux, rex is unable to assemble the forces necessary to engage in great projects and without rex, dux's achievements are fleeting (1957, 99). Thus, accidental presidents must hastily find ways to establish their qualifications as rex that are more substantial than those entailed by meeting minimal constitutional requirements and participating in an election in the role of vice president, and they must also rapidly create the conditions that will permit them to govern as dux. The range of these accidental presidents across identifiable periods permits us to review these creative efforts in widely different political and constitutional circumstances.

Three basic strategies have been pursued by accidental presidents to establish and enhance their legitimacy. None is reliably successful but each illustrates ways in which presidents are able to mimic conventional modes of democratic succession. The efforts of accidental presidents thus provide a framework to assess the question of a democratic theory of succession, for a certain resiliency is necessary to respond to irregular modes of succession yet excessive plasticity might threaten the primacy of election as the privileged method of succession.

Succession Without Election

By briefly reviewing the democratic ideal of succession, one can appreciate the difficulties that face an accidental president. As the term of office of the current leader is about to expire, two or more individuals announce their intention to claim the office through an election. In the modern context, a political party endorses each candidate. Citizens assess these claimants through a variety of formats--personal solicitation, visual and written representations, proxy performances--and reach a judgment. They register their support for a particular claimant at an election in which procedures for voting, counting ballots, and determining the victor are stipulated in advance. Thus authorized, the leader is ceremonially installed in office (with the former leader simultaneously vacating) and forms a new government. Democratic theorists support this mode of succession not only because it permits a much wider authorization for selecting new leaders than in other regimes bur also because the procedure is peaceful, swift, and decisive (Calvert 1987; Dahl 1989; Saward 2003; Schumpeter 1943).

Of course, this democratic ideal of succession is rarely met. Elections are frequently contested on the grounds of unacceptable exclusions, the presence of intimidation, and the use of force and fraud. Disputed elections often involve lengthy delays and electoral results are often ambiguous. In these cases, new leaders must find ways to claim that their succession fits at least a minimal standard of legitimacy.

Accidental presidents confront these questions in extremis. Vice presidents, of course, present themselves before voters but they do so from a decidedly subordinate position. After the Twelfth Amendment, the visibility of the office was significantly reduced and until recently was not considered a major route for a future presidency (Lutz et al. 2002, 38-40). Thus, while the vice president is constitutionally the first in line for succession, he was not politically in this favored position. The secretary of state was the claimant in a practical sense and the vice presidency was regarded as a dead-end office. Subsequent vice presidents after 1800 were men at the end of their political careers. Monroe's appointment of John Quincy Adams, the son of a Federalist president, rather than the Democrat William Crawford, created a political crisis in his party. The value of the vice presidency was enhanced in the electoral context with the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, however, although this change noticeably complicated the role of the office in terms of succession. Accidental presidents represented different wings of their party or, in the case of Tyler and Johnson, were from different parties. Arthur was the price demanded by Stalwarts for support of the Garfield ticket. FDR's selection of Truman was due to pressures by powerful leaders to drop Henry Wallace, and Nixon allegedly chose Ford as a part of an inoculation strategy against impeachment. Accidental presidents therefore may have been elected (except in the case of Ford) but their policies are more often different from the ones voters may have based their decisions upon when voting for the top of the ticket. In about half of the administrations of accidental presidents, this policy disjunction has been extreme: Tyler in terms of a national bank and tariff; Fillmore and the slavery crisis; Johnson and Reconstruction; Arthur and civil service reform. In others, suspicions were less pronounced but no less significant in terms of alleged policy reversals: TR and corporate regulation; Truman and the Cold War; Johnson and Vietnam.

Accidental presidents also do not benefit from the complex symbolic succession rituals in democratic practice adapted from monarchal regimes (Abbott, Thompson, and Thompson 2002). Like the crowning of a prince, there is a democratic version authorizing the winner, the fairness of the election, and a mandate, and like the reincarnation of rex, there is the process of transforming the candidate into the president. Identifiable scripts are performed in each of these rituals. In the "crowning the prince" ritual the campaign formally ends with concession and victory speeches, congratulatory messages from other governments, and media editorials. In the "reincarnating rex" ritual, words and images are chosen to signify the president-elect's leadership of the entire electorate. Personal characteristics such as fairness, deliberation, and compromise are stressed as the candidate/combatant is recast as the imminent rex/dux.

The inaugural, as the democratic equivalent of coronation, is part of a "rex ascendant" ritual in which the president-elect formally assumes the role of both rex and dux. The parades, balls, oath of office, and a first address by the new leader are symbolic gateways to legitimacy. The new president acknowledges not only the additive aspect of rex but attempts to establish his role as interpreter of national identity. In the words of Martin Van Buren, "The President under our system, like the king in a monarchy, never dies" (1867, 290). The ascent also includes confirmation of cabinet secretaries and the first official acts of the new leader.

The election as a successful succession device also requires the ritual deposition of the previous rex and/or his successors. The relative silence of the old rex after an election is preparatory to this final displacement. The "burying rex" ritual is thus both a transition and a renewal ritual that emphasizes the continuity of rex and the novelty of another dux (Bertelli 2001, 214-30). Orderly transitions in modern democracies are sensitive to even symbolic usurpation. Therefore, in a perfect election, during the sitting president's lame duck period, the president-elect usually signals obliquely that there will be a ritual burial of his predecessor. This interment involves accepting resignations of cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking political appointees, overturning some executive orders, and a public review of past policies.

Accidental presidents do not enjoy any liminal period between election and office holding. In fact, their accession to office is abrupt and unexpected both by the vice president himself and the public. In some cases, there are brief moments of probability such as was the case with Garfield's lingering demise and Nixon's impeachment. But in these instances, the vice president must be especially cautious about succession and at least strike a public pose of surprise at taking office. Vice presidents too have no opportunity to publicly reincarnate themselves as rex. Balls and parties in particular would be especially inappropriate. Nether are vice presidents afforded the opportunity of assembling their own government. In fact, one of the repeated burdens of accidental presidents is the initial reliance upon cabinet officials as counselors and administrators. Burying rex would seem to be a fait accompli because in most cases the departing leader is literally rather than symbolically dead. But even in this case, the actual death of the president removes from the new president the symbolism of voluntary relinquishment of authority that so enhances democratic succession.

Accidental presidents are, however, not without resources. The suddenness of their new position is so dramatic and focused that it can augment the role of rex by its very compression. Oaths, attendance at funerals, and the equivalent of inaugurals can be arranged for a highly...

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