Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

A Little Bit of American Civics

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[If you are an American, you might find this useful as a refresher course, especially with the up-coming Presidential election. If you are not "of the Stars and Stripes faith", perhaps this will help you understand some of that "awful American news that keeps on invading your TV set and newspapers!" For those of you living in countries where you get only 1–2 months' notice of a general election, be thankful.]

I was born in and lived in Australia for 25 years, but I know very little about its political system. I've now lived in the US for 33 years, and I'm a US citizen. (See my April 2010 essay "The Road to US Citizenship".) Along the way, I've become very interested in the US Constitution, I've read quite a bit about US Presidents, and I've followed closely the deliberations of the US Supreme Court.

Over the years, I've researched many civics-related questions and picked up lots of trivia. In this 2-part essay, I'll share with you some of what I've learned. In this first part, I'll cover the Constitution and the best-known bits of the Executive Branch (Presidency, Vice Presidency, and Cabinet). In the second part, I'll cover the Legislative Branch (Senate and House), Presidential Succession, the Judicial Branch (primarily the Supreme Court), the flag, and Third Parties and Independents.

The Constitution

The US Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It was drafted by a group of very able and interesting men (who happened to be white and generally more affluent and more educated than most Americans were), and was adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, late in 1787. Several years later, it became law when it was ratified by a sufficient number of states. [It is important to mention that not all state delegates appointed to the Constitutional Convention actually attended, and not all those who attended actually approved/signed the result. Rhode Island did not even send any delegates (probably because they were too busy taking care of their chickens!) It is also worth noting that the first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the constitution, left a lot to be desired. Even the Americans don't always get it right the first time!]

To Americans, their Constitution is the bedrock of society. Imagine their surprise then when they learn that some countries do not have a written constitution. (Can you say The United Kingdom?) And they are also quite puzzled when they hear of some failed country setting about writing yet another new constitution. [Can you say Banana Republic?]

As for me, I don't find it all surprising that the US Constitution and Congressional model have been adopted or adapted by more than a few countries. For the most part, I much prefer it over the wide-spread Parliamentary system under which I grew up. [Yes, I'm grown up, but as some of you know firsthand, I don't always act like it.]

The basic thrust of the Constitution was to "establish the rules and separate powers of the three branches of the federal government: a legislature, the bicameral Congress; an executive branch led by the President; and a federal judiciary headed by the Supreme Court." Also, it assigns the powers not explicitly given to the Federal Government, to the individual states.

The Constitution can be amended, and, remarkably, in its 225-year history only 27 amendments have been approved (and one of those, the 18th, was negated by another, the 21st, the respective creation and subsequent repeal of Prohibition).

Although many good ideas were proposed for the Constitution, it was decided to adopt it in an incomplete form, and then add more things soon after through amendments, the first 10 of which are known as The Bill of Rights. Although these 10 amendments were soon ratified, the original package approved by Congress and submitted for ratification contained 12. Of the two that didn't "make the cut" way back when, one of them finally received support from enough states to become the 27th Amendment, adopted in 1992, a mere 203 years after it was submitted! So what was this monumental change? If Congress gives itself a pay raise, that raise cannot take effect until the next (2-year) Congressional term. [Three quarters of the states are required to ratify an amendment, and as time went on, more states joined the union, so it required more states to ratify the amendment.] The other amendment that didn't "make the cut" is still waiting to be ratified, although that is unlikely to ever happen. This one has to do with making rules regarding representation in the House of Representatives. (While the Constitution spells out representation for the Senate [each state gets two senators], it does not do so for the House [where the number of representatives is based on population].)

Most amendments were proposed without an expiration date, leading to the 203-year wait mentioned above. However, this changed starting in 1917 when an expiration date was first used. Since then, two amendments have expired without being ratified: The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), 1972, and The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, 1978.

For my US Citizenship test, I had to remember the answers to about 100 questions, some 10 of which I'd be asked at my in-person interview. And while I was also given the answers in advance, one question and answer was far more complex than all the other others, namely:

Question: Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.

Answer: 15th (non-white males get the vote), 19th (women get the vote), 24th (state laws allowing poll taxes cannot be applied to Federal elections), and 26th (lowering the voting age from 21 to 18).

[Even in my old age, I can easily remember the purpose of each, but I sure don't remember their numbers!]

Remember that the states get to keep all the rights not explicitly given to the Federal Government by the Constitution. And some states had laws to prevent certain categories of people from voting. However, the 24th amendment prohibits such laws from being applied to Federal elections; that is, for President, Vice President, Senator, and Representative. [Other amendments prohibit other restrictions to voting.]

The Executive Branch

Through his cabinet secretaries, the President oversees almost all so-called civil servants and military personnel. In general, it is accepted that the Vice President is part of the Executive Branch; however, he is also President of the Senate, which is part of the Legislative Branch.

The Presidency

The President of the United States heads the executive branch.

According to the 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 to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

[At this stage, we pause for a moment of silence during which we reflect on the shortsightedness of the Founding Fathers by their disallowing moi to become President because of a lack of natural bornedness! What were they thinking? It's probably just as well, as "President Rex" sounds a bit odd given that Rex is Latin for King!]

You may have read how back before the 2008 election (and even before this coming one) some people questioned whether Barack Obama was a natural born Citizen. This also happened, but to a lesser extent, to his opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone, and the question was whether or not that was formally part of the US to make him a citizen. Interestingly, McCain's predecessor as senator, Barry Goldwater, was born in the Arizona Territory, before it became a state. And that raised a similar question back when he ran for President.

The President is elected to a 4-year term, and, originally, the Constitution placed no limits on the number of terms that could be served. The first President, George Washington, thought that two terms was enough and that set the precedent. However, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) changed all that when he was elected to four successive terms starting in 1933. (He died early in his 4th term, and it has since been discovered that there was a long history of death in his family!) This "carrying on like a monarch" upset enough people that the 22nd Amendment was created and ratified to limit the presidency to two terms, where a term is defined as "more than two years". So, if a president dies in office and has less than two years left on his term, the vice president who serves that remaining time can also serve two full terms of his own. However, FDR died leaving more than two years, but the amendment exempted the then current president, Harry Truman, so he was not term-limited. (In any event, he ran and served for only one full term of his own.)

George Washington was President number 1 and Barack Obama is President number 44; however, there have only been 43 Presidents. That's because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms and is number 22 and 24. [Senate President pro tempore David Rice Atchison's tombstone states that he was President for a day. President-elect Zachary Taylor (#12) refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday leaving the presidency technically vacant from noon on Saturday, March 3, 1849 when outgoing President Polk's (#11) term ended, until Monday, March 5 at noon when Taylor was sworn in.]

Sometime after the US was created, Congress determined that the election for President (and Vice President) takes place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of years that are an exact multiple of 4 (as in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and so on). After being elected, the President-elect has a transition period during which to "get organized" and to start nominating his cabinet members and many other appointees. George Washington (#1) took office on April 30, 1789 (having been elected on February 4 of that year). Presidents from John Adams (#2) on took office on March 4, until Dwight Eisenhower (#34), who took office on January 20. Currently, the transition period is about 10 weeks (3 in November, 4 in December, and 3 in January), which is not a lot to get ready to "hit the ground running" for the leader for the free world. [In many (most?) countries a new leader takes office within days or weeks of being elected giving them next to no time to get ready.] Nowadays, the Presidential Inauguration takes place on the steps of The Capitol in Washington at noon, Eastern Standard Time, January 20.

Four Presidents were assassinated while in office: Lincoln (#16), Garfield (#20), McKinley (#25), and Kennedy (#35). Four Presidents died of natural causes while in office: Wm. Harrison (#9), Taylor (#12), Harding (#29), and F.D. Roosevelt (#32). One President resigned: Nixon (#37). Five died in their first term with Harrison lasting only a month. Wilson (#28) suffered a stroke during his second term that paralyzed his left side and blinded him in his left eye. Historians generally agree that his wife Edith and his chief of staff conspired to keep the extent of his incapacity secret and ran the government on his behalf. This situation was one of the big reasons for the 25th Amendment's handling of Presidential incapacity.

The states in which the most Presidents were born are: Virginia (8), Ohio (7), and Massachusetts and New York (each 4). 25 Presidents were lawyers.

Andrew Johnson (#17) was the first president to be impeached. Clinton (#42) was the second. Both were found not guilty. Impeachment proceedings were begun against Nixon (#37); however, he resigned before they were completed. [According to Wikipedia, 'At the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin noted that, historically, the removal of "obnoxious" chief executives had been accomplished by assassination. Franklin suggested that a proceduralized mechanism for removal—impeachment—would be preferable.']

Kennedy (#35) was the first Catholic president. Ford (#38) was the first non-elected Vice President and the first non-elected President. Bush Jr. (#43) was the winner of the first election resolved by the Supreme Court. Obama (#44) was the first non-white president.

Taft (#27) was the last to have a cow at the White House and the first to have automobiles there. Coolidge (#30) had nine hours of sleep a night plus 2–4-hour naps in the afternoons. Hoover (#31) was the first to donate his salary to charity. F.D. Roosevelt (#32) was the first to appear on TV, and the first to visit an overseas war zone. Eisenhower (#34) served in both World Wars and was the first with a pilot's license. Kennedy (#35) won a Pulitzer Prize. Ford (#38) survived two assassination attempts by women. Carter (#39) was the first to be born in a hospital, the first to be sworn in using his nickname, Jimmy, and the first to send his mother on a diplomatic mission. (After the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis, she [Ms. Lillian] proposed putting a bounty on Ayatollah Khomeini's head!) Reagan (#40) was the first to have headed a labor union, the first to have been divorced, and the oldest (nearly 70 at his inauguration).

Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Teddy Roosevelt (#26) in 1906, Wilson (#28) in 1919, Carter (#39) in 2002, and Obama (#44) in 2009.

Most common-use US banknotes have pictures of Presidents: $1 [Washington (#1)], $2 [Jefferson (#3)], $5 [Lincoln (#16)], $20 [Jackson (#7)], and $50 [Grant (#18)]. [The non-President ones are $10 (Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasurer and the man who invented the National Debt, perhaps the most successful modern invention ever!) and $100 (Benjamin Franklin).]

Everyone knows that the President is protected by the Secret Service, but such protective duty didn't start until 1902 after President McKinley (#25) was the third one to be assassinated. [Until then, these agents' primary job was to catch counterfeiters of US currency.]

A well-known fact is that the Presidential Retreat is called Camp David. This is located some 60 miles northwest of Washington DC, in the state of Maryland. It took on that role during FDR's time. It received its current name from Eisenhower, whose father and grandson were both named David. The President gets to this hideaway on a helicopter called Marine One. He uses Air Force One to fly longer distances (and to take his best friends golfing) and his limo is often referred to as The Beast. Of course, the President and his family live in the White House, which is right next door to the Federal Treasury building, making it very convenient when he needs to use his ATM card to get small amounts of cash to pay for a pizza delivery, or to withdraw a billion or two for petty cash!

The Vice Presidency

Like the President, the Vice President (VP) must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, be at least 35 years old, and have resided in the US at least 14 years. The 12th amendment to the Constitution requires that "no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States".

The 20th amendment requires that the Vice President's term of office begin at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on January 20 of the year following the election. This date marks the beginning of a 4-year term. The President and Vice President run on the same ticket; that is, they run together as a package.

Throughout US history, the role of the Vice President has largely been small and ceremonial. Texan John Nance Garner (known affectionately by some as Cactus Jack), who served as FDR's Vice President from 1933 to 1941, claimed that the Vice Presidency "isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss."

As you may know Bush Sr., Reagan's VP and then President 41, served as a navy torpedo bomber pilot in WWII, during which he was shot down and had to use his parachute. While in office, he vowed he would make another parachute jump, but this time it would be voluntarily. And he did, several times. A variant of the story goes like this: George is being readied for his jump and his instructor is refreshing his memory. "Sir, this is the cord for your primary chute." "Yes, I remember that." "If that fails to open, you pull this cord, which opens your auxiliary chute." "Right, but what's this third cord for?" "Well sir, if your primary and auxiliary chutes fail to open, you pull this one and it sounds a bell in the Vice President's office telling him to get ready to attend a state funeral!" After all, attending such funerals was and still is one of the VP's main tasks.

Initially, on the death of the President there was doubt as to whether the VP would become the new President or merely an acting President. This was resolved in 1841 on the death of Wm. Harrison when his VP, John Tyler, "declared it so".

Listen up now all you US Civics Experts; it's Question Time: When President Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963, his VP, L.B. Johnson (#36) was sworn in by a federal judge on Air Force One. Who served the remainder of the 1961–1965 term as Johnson's VP? Now, I've posed this question to many Americans, and I have gotten a whole host of answers, but only two people have gotten it right thus far. It's a trick question! The answer is that he had no VP. Yep, that's right; the Constitution made no provision for filling a vacant VP slot. And this was the 8th time the sitting VP has stepped up to fill a vacant presidency, and therefore the 8th time he had no VP!

The 25th Amendment was drafted and ratified to clarify succession. Section 2 states, "Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress." The first Vice President selected by this method was Gerald Ford, who took office after VP Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973. Then when Nixon resigned as President, Ford became the first unelected President; and he nominated Nelson Rockefeller as his VP.

14 Vice Presidents went on to become President although not all inherited the mantle of their immediate predecessor. Richard Nixon is the only non-sitting Vice President to be elected President, as well as the only person to be elected President and Vice President twice each.

The VP is also President of the US Senate, where he has two jobs: to vote in the event of a deadlock and to preside over and certify the official vote count of the U.S. Electoral College.

Prior to 1974, the VP had to find his own place to live while in Washington DC. Finally, an official residence was provided at Number One Observatory Circle, but it was not occupied for another three years until VP Mondale moved in.

Bush Sr.'s VP, Dan Quayle, was so inept that someone started a website that was dedicated to his gaffes, of which there were many. He demonstrated on national TV that a VP need not know how to spell. And in advance of an up-coming trip to Latin America, he lamented not having paid more attention in his Latin classes at school! I can honestly say that the embarrassing spectacle of his term was what started me thinking about becoming a citizen, so I could vote.

The Cabinet

Unlike in a parliamentary system in which cabinet members are elected politicians, the members of the Cabinet of the United States are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate, and serve at the pleasure of the President. Each heads his/her corresponding government department. There are currently 15 cabinet members and all have the title "Secretary of xxx" except for Justice, which is headed by the Attorney General. [Defense is a cabinet department and under that, there exists subordinate military departments for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with a whole slew of defense-related agencies.]

There are a number of cabinet-level officers, which includes the VP, the White House Chief of Staff, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the ambassador to the UN. From time to time, departments are created, disbanded, or renamed. Homeland Security, the most recent—and likely the biggest–was created in the aftermath of 9/11. The first President, George Washington, had a Cabinet of four: State, Treasury, War, and Attorney General. [The War department later became Defense.]

The "Department of Dirty Tricks" (that is, the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]) is not a cabinet department. In fact, it really doesn't exist except in movies.

A detailed list of all the cabinet members of all the Presidents can be found here.

In general, it seems that being a Cabinet Secretary is not a good launching pad for higher office. Hoover (#31) was the most recent Cabinet member (Commerce) to have become President, way back in 1929. Taft (#27) did it all! He was Teddy Roosevelt's War Secretary; then he was President, and, finally, he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. [Grossly overweight, Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub the first time he used it.]

Stay tuned for Part 2, y'all!

Comments (1) -

  • Wally Paul

    9/26/2012 6:50:06 PM | Reply

    Excellent post.

    The first President I remember is Kennedy, because he was assassinated.  I was in the 4th grade and we were sent home from school.  I also attended an impeach Nixon rally where freshman Representative William Cohen- who was later Senator, then Secretary of Defense under Clinton spoke.  Secretary Cohen was the only republican to break ranks on the house judiciary committee, which is assigned to indict an official for impeachment, causing the vote for Nixon's impeachment to be 7-6 in favor.  Nixon resigned rather than face the process.

    Harrison died of pneumonia after speaking for 4 hours in the rain at his inauguration.

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