When the President is the Patient

From an Exhibit at
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
19 South Twenty-Second Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

When the founding Fathers created the office of the presidency as part of the Constitution, they chose not to get involved in details concerning the concept of presidential disability. When the chief executive was unable to "discharge the Powers and Duties" of the presidency, those duties were to fall to the Vice President "until the Disability be removed or a President shall be elected". The Founders did not explain what they meant by "inability" or "disability." Nor was any procedure created to determine when a president was disabled.

As you will see in this exhibit, several presidents were disabled for at least part of their administrations. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, was clearly incapable of carrying out the duties of the office during his last year in the White House. Yet it was not until 1967, with the adoption of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, that a procedure was established to address the issue of presidential disability.

Because the 25th Amendment has never been invoked, we do not know how effectively it will work. The assassination attempt of President Reagan in 1981 was the first opportunity to test the disability provisions of the Amendment. The Reagan administration, however, decided not to invoke the amendment. Yet when President Reagan underwent cancer surgery in 1985, he did transfer power to Vice President George Bush. Bush was Acting President for eight hours.

Because the 25th Amendment does not define "disability", important questions remain. What does the term mean? Who decides?