When President James Garfield lay fatally wounded by an assassin's bullet at the White House in 1881, Vice President Chester Allen Arthur was dangerously ill. Had Arthur also died, there would have, been no immediately available successor to the White House. The next in line was the Senate's President pro tem, but Congress was not in session and had elected no such officer. As a result of this and other crises, Congress in 1886 passed a new Presidential Succession Act, making the Secretary of State next in line after the Vice President.
Last week Harry Truman, as he took off for the West Coast on his first plane trip as President, asked Congress for another succession law. Its provisions: make the Speaker of the House first in line, and after him the Senate President pro tem. After them would come the Secretary of State and other Cabinet officers, as prescribed in the 1886 Act.
Said the President: the law should be changed because, in effect (by appointment of a new Secretary of State), the President could choose his own successor. He did not believe that the President should have such power. The two Congressional leaders, he said, were more logical successors because they came closest to being elected by all the voters of the nation. He did not have to remind Congress that the present Secretary of State is young Ed Stettinius, a personable and energetic man, but neither an experienced nor an elected official.
The President's request promptly threw the spotlight on 63-year-old Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, and on 76-year-old Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, the Senate's presiding officer. To U.S. citizens, middle-of -the -roader Sam Rayburn, 31 years in Congress, seemed reasonable enough as a presidential possibility. But they quailed at the thought of crotchety, patronage-grabbing Kenneth McKellar, whose striped trousers seemed almost his sole presidential qualification.
The Flaws. At first the Truman plan was greeted with enthusiasm. In a few days some flaws were pointed out. A Speaker or President pro tem might not be able to qualify (if born outside the U.S., or if younger than 35). More importantly, a Speaker might well be a political opponent of the Administration he would take over. Recent examples: Republican Speaker Frederick H. Gillett in the Wilson Administration (1919); Democratic Speaker John Nance Garner in the Hoover Administration (1931).*
There was another highly legalistic objection. According to the Constitution, a man who gains the Presidency by succession (not election) must be an "officer" of the Government. But the Supreme Court, in various rulings, has held that neither the Speaker nor the President pro tem are such officers.
At week's end it looked as though Congress would pass some kind of law in line with the Truman proposal. But there was no guarantee that this would be a cureall. In its 169 years, the U.S. has had many more able and distinguished Secretaries of State than Speakers of the House.
*In 1868, when impeachment proceedings were brought against Andrew Johnson, the next in line was Senate President pro tem Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Had there been one more vote in favor of impeachment, a tie would have resulted and Wade could have voted himself into the White House.