When George Washington was asked to stand for a third term as president in 1796, Washington refused declaring that two-terms were more than enough for any president. Washington also wanted to ensure a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. The precedent that Washington set lasted for almost 150 years. It was only finally destroyed when Franklin Roosevelt won a third term after he decided that two terms was not enough to satisfy his maniacal ambition. Roosevelt, though, had to campaign hard for that third term. The old habit of two terms seemed to die hard.
Unlike, Roosevelt who never had to face the 22nd Amendment, Clinton will have to do without a third term. Unlike Washington who could have easily won a third term, but refused, Bill Clinton has spent his final days telling every reporter who will listen how much he enjoys being president and how if he could, he would run for a third term. He has even gone so far as to claim that if he were to run for a third term he could easily win it. This claim wasn’t supported by all the polls, but I have no doubt that Clinton heartily believes it. In the throes of his megalomania, I doubt that Clinton has noticed that the 22nd Amendment was adopted to keep people just like him from seeking a third term. It has often been said that anyone who wants to be president should not be allowed to hold the job. Well if that is so, than it is certainly true that any one who can’t be satisfied with eight years as president should most certainly never inhabit the oval office.
Of course, Clinton is not alone in wanting a third term. Many popular presidents have contemplated the gutsy move. Andrew Jackson was asked to do so but refused on the grounds that he was too old and tired. Grover Cleveland briefly contemplated it but was refused the support of his party in the 1896 election. (If he had won it would still only have given him two consecutive terms.) Theodore Roosevelt came the closest to serving a third term when he ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. Roosevelt felt that Taft was doing an inadequate job, so he ran for president and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson. Like his cousin Franklin, Theodore loved big government and felt the country would benefit from an extended term of Roosevelt I.
Ol’ Franklin was the only one who managed to make a successful go of it, and he even managed to get himself elected to a fourth term, although he died about three months after his fourth inauguration. After the end of WWII, though, the Washington precedent reared its head again and the Congress moved to ratify the 22nd Amendment prohibiting a third term. The 80th Congress reasoned that precedent had been quite sufficient for a long time. They concluded that a u201Cwell defined customu201D had been established, and that the preservation of that custom would be beneficial. They specifically made an exception in the amendment for Truman, but like most presidents before him, Truman was satisfied with two terms. The amendment was finally ratified in 1951 and that coveted third term was forever put out of reach of ambitious presidents.
The Amendment was quite an unusual piece of legislation for the 20th century. Unlike most 20th century legislation which expanded the executive branch and expanded suffrage for various groups, the 22nd Amendment is anti-executive and undemocratic. It denies the voters the right to reelect a president if they like him, and lessens the power of the executive branch in relation to the legislative branch. It also lessons the power a president has over the federal courts by only giving him eight years to name judges. It is essentially a remnant of 19th century American political philosophy when executive power was viewed with much more suspicion than it is now. The Constitution of the Southern Confederacy, written in 1861, limited the president to one six year term. Under no circumstances could a Confederate president be elected to even a second term let alone a third one.
The 22nd Amendment and Impeachment
Clinton is a man with intimate knowledge of the 22nd Amendment. During impeachment it was often noted that if it weren’t for the amendment, Clinton could simply run for president in 2000 had be been impeached. Within such a scenario, Clinton could very well have been elected as an impeached president. Online polls were circulated asking readers to weigh in on repealing the 22nd Amendment. Positive responses were scarce. Undoubtedly, a story of an impeached Clinton turned president-elect Clinton is a tasty story for Clinton lovers, but thanks to the amendment, such things were and are impossible.
Not surprisingly, u201Cwell defined customsu201D and Washingtonian philosophy mean little to Bill Clinton. Clinton loved being an overbearing president, and a third term would have only helped along his ideas of presidential dominance. Since presidents tend to be very ambitious men in the first place, it is likely that many other presidents have felt this way also, but many of them never even made it to a second term, and those who did had the memory of Washington restraining them. Not interested with even appearing humble, the president runs around trumpeting his hypothetical win of a third term. Convinced that he is adored, Clinton is sure he could win a third and probably even a fourth term if he were allowed. Fortunately, the Constitution does not allow the voters the freedom to prove him right.
December 22, 2000
Ryan McMaken is a graduate student in American politics at the University of Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.