Ago today the Twenty-second Amendment to the...


February 27, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

FORTY YEARS ago today the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, limiting presidents to two terms, was ratified.

This was the Republican Party's equivalent of driving a stake through a dead Democratic vampire's heart. What a goof! The only live victims of the stake turned out to be Republican presidents. At last one, maybe two, maybe even three.

George Washington did not like the job of president, so he said in his famous Farewell Address before the 1796 election that he would not accept another term. The next president, John Adams, didn't even serve two terms. The next, Thomas Jefferson, turned down a request that he seek a third term. The next and the next, James Madison and James Monroe, served only two terms. Washington's example had become a tradition.

This tradition didn't play a prominent role in presidential politics for most of the rest of the century. Only one president between Monroe and Reconstruction served two terms. That was Andrew Jackson, who said he favored a constitutional ban against third terms.

The next president to serve out two terms was U.S. Grant. He let it be known he was willing to run a third time. The House of Representatives passed a resolution labeling a third term "unpatriotic."

The next two-termers were Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, neither with even remotely realistic third-term prospects. In 1940, 144 years after George Washington's Farewell, came Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hello. He won a third term. In 1944 he ran again and won again.

He died in 1945, but during what would have been the mid-point of his fourth term early in 1947, Republicans, fearful that he might come back to life, pushed the Twenty-second Amendment through Congress. Republicans voted for it 238-0 in the House, 46-0 in the Senate. (Most Democrats voted against.)

It was ratified by the necessary number of states and became part of the Constitution on Feb. 27, 1951.

Since then only two presidents have served out two terms and thus could have run for a third. Dwight Eisenhower led the Republicans back into the White House in 1952 after 20 years in the wilderness. He was extraordinarily popular as his second term came to a close. He would have been re-elected. Ronald Reagan, was also popular in the polls as his second term ended and probably could have been re-elected.

I said "maybe even three" Republican presidents might have been victims of the Twenty-second Amendment. Suppose in 1972 Richard Nixon could have contemplated more than just one more presidential term. Suppose he decided against the high-risk strategy that produced Watergate -- on the reasonable theory that exposure after the 1972 election while not likely to lead to impeachment was likely to destroy any 1976 re-election bid.

I think he could have won in 1976. Who knows, he might be president still if it weren't for the Twenty-second Amendment.

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