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The 22nd Amendment vs. the 12th

| Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Bill Clinton, then and now, is explicit in his appetite for the presidency. He says he would have stayed in the job for life, so maybe the 22nd Amendment should be changed so a president elected to two terms could skip a few years and run again.

Can you blame him• The presidency is a platform unequaled for partying with foreign leaders, apologizing for various things and getting girls.

The Trib speculated recently in an editorial titled "Performance, promise" that with the 22nd Amendment still in place, Mr. Clinton could once again be president.

Our scenario was simple and familial. He runs as the vice presidential candidate on a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton. She wins, then resigns or dies, and he serves out her term.

Junkies of the Constitution (and others, in abject terror) poked a stick in this hornet's nest in 2000 when Al Gore was running for president and Bill Clinton's time in the brightest of spotlights was running out.

Similar speculation attends the year 1974 when Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon, who resigned. In that doomsday offering, Ford pardons Nixon (as he did), but then resigns (he didn't); Nixon ascends.

The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951 so the Democrats couldn't steamroll another FDR over the Republican Party, made official the unofficial rule inspired by George Washington's refusal to stay in office more than eight years.

(Maybe the GOP wasn't looking far enough ahead. Republicans weren't crowing about the 22nd Amendment when Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were constitutionally barred from running again. It cuts both ways.)

Yet, we're in pretty good company if we agree with President Washington that a periodic turnover is good for republican government. In the 18th century, term limits had support.

The 22nd Amendment says a person cannot be elected more than twice to the presidency, but does not forbid our scenario.

However, the 12th Amendment contains this deliciously provocative phrase: "But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States."

Editorial page Editor Colin McNickle dropped that morsel on my desk the day after the editorial appeared, and I wondered if I had missed something. Neither he nor I was sure.

The meaning of the 12th Amendment was clear enough in 1804, when there was no cap on how many times a person could be elected president.

From Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution: "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

But what does "constitutionally ineligible" mean in light of the 22nd Amendment. I think the same thing it meant in 1804, failing to meet the basic qualifications of age, residency and citizenship at birth. It is simple logic that a vice president, who could succeed to the office at a moment's notice, should meet those standards.

The constitutional disability Clinton suffers - by the clear language of the amendment - is his ineligibility to be elected a third time. The 22nd could have, but does not, plainly bar a former president elected twice from achieving the office again through other means.

It could have said: "No person elected twice to the office of President shall be elected again, nor succeed to the office of President."

But, it does not.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not faced the question. And thus, junkies of the Constitution are emboldened to have a say.

But why would we spend valuable column inches on such a picayune point• This one popped up because of something the loquacious ex-president said the other day, and because thinking and writing about the best national plan of government ever devised is endlessly fascinating and fulfilling.

It keeps our mind on the prize.

Gery Steighner writes editorials for the Trib. Call him at (412) 380-5623. E-mail him at: gsteighner@tribweb.com

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