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Robbins: Presidential succession and the 22nd Amendment

Our first president, George Washington, started it. As the end of his second presidential term approached, he said, “No mas.” Or something like that anyway. I wasn’t there to record precisely how he phrased it.

Until later in their lives when they became dear friends and correspondents, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, and our second, John Adams, it would be fair to say, loathed each other. And yet, when Adams bested Jefferson by a slender margin to succeed George Washington, Jefferson conceded. He may have huffed and puffed and sulked, but when the dust settled, Adams peaceably became our second president. Four years later, when Jefferson ousted Adams after a single term, Adams accepted his defeat. In both instances, our fledgling democracy was more important to these patriots than their not insubstantial egos.

And so it has gone from one president to the next. And then the next and next. Sore losers? Sure, we’ve had some. Gracious losers? George H.W. Bush comes quickly to mind as a lesson in grace and class. But what has been unbending, until 2020 anyway, has been generally adult behavior and the recognition that the very core of this nation’s soul is the peaceful transition of power.



But then, of course, came Donald Trump.

The 22nd Amendment encoded what George Washington started and, except for the one-off of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fairly won four terms, every president has followed in Washington’s enlightened footsteps. Enacted into law only in 1947, the 22nd Amendment provides that no president may hold the office of the presidency more than twice.



In the 233 years since George Washington took the oath of office, there have been 45 successors. Of the 46 presidents, there have been one Federalist, four Whigs, four Democratic Republicans, 17 Democrats, 19 Republicans and Washington, who was unaffiliated with any political party. Including FDR, 21 presidents have been elected to two terms. Twenty-three have served one term or less. Five presidents died while in their first term (two by assassination — James Garfield and John F. Kennedy).

Several who stepped in for one of these fallen presidents completed the remainder of that term and left. While Lyndon Johnson served six years, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he was elected to only one term of his own and, mired in Vietnam, determined not to seek a second term. The shortest presidency on record is that of William Henry Harrison, who died just 31 days after his inauguration. He was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler.

For the astute among you, you will note that the above math does not add up. Twenty-one plus 23 equals 44. Haven’t there been 46?

Well yes.

Joe Biden is his first term, so that makes 45.

And then there’s Grover Cleveland, the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland was our 22nd and our 24th president, so he counts for two.

Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who at 42 became our youngest president following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, after a four-year hiatus from the presidency which he left in 1909, tried a run and lost under the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.

As different as each of presidents 1-44 were, and as different as their philosophies of governance and nation have been, they all shared at least one thing in common: respect for our form of government and for the free and fair elections that are the halyards that lash the sails of the democracy. When they lost or when their time ran up, they left.

And then came Trump.

Only four presidents were piqued or ungracious enough to not attend their successor’s swearing-in: John Adams, the second U.S. president; his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president — there seems to have been a stubborn streak among the Adams; Andrew Johnson, the 17th president and the first to be impeached; and Donald Trump, the only president to have been twice impeached. All were one-term presidents.

At least twice in our history — the 1876 Tilden-Hayes election and the George W. Bush-Al Gore election of 2000 — was there a question as to who really won the election. Each was settled peaceably — the first by the Compromise of 1877 and the second by a divided Supreme Court. In both instances, however, despite the hiss and rancor, neither “loser,” Tilden nor Gore, tried to bring down or dismantle the democracy.

And then came Trump. And then came 2020. And then came January 6, 2021, and the lies, machinations and maneuvering that led up to it. All of which have sadly persisted.

As George Washington and the Founders clearly saw, for a democracy to flourish, the roots of it — free and fair elections — must grow without the weeds of mis- and disinformation strangling them. Truth and light are not only disinfectants, but they are also the strength and lifeblood of a nation unfettered from authoritarianism and treacherous demagoguery.


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