An amendment to the U. S. Constitution was proposed in 2004 that would allow anyone who has been a citizen of the United States for 35 years to be eligible to run for the office of President of the United States. It was proposed by the last true gem of Arkansas’ six-person Washington delegation, former Representative Vic Snyder. Unlike the Federal Marriage, the Anti-Abortion, and the Flag Protection Amendments, Mr. Snyder’s proposal would not deny rights or appeal to hatred and discrimination but is actually commendable and worthy of serious consideration. Consequently, the trick will be to find a way to get the Republican Party to support it. It takes a 2/3 congressional majority to approve a constitutional amendment.
The Republicans have been reluctantly persuaded to do the right thing before and have even been able to turn it to their advantage. One example of this is Amendment 26 which gave the right to vote to any citizen 18 years of age or older. As the Vietnam War consumed America’s youth, it was only fair that those being drafted should have the right to vote for the President who would send them to war. The Republicans did not really want this amendment because they realized that the 18 to 21-year–olds would probably vote en masse against their man, President Nixon, in the 1972 election because of his eager continuation of the war. However, the amendment was proposed and ratified in only 100 days in 1971. Nixon, no fool he, had probably already anticipated this and had a solution to his problem of reelection: He ended the draft. It was brilliant. The draft-aged youths voted for him in large numbers, and that age group has hardly voted since. Another downside is that presidents can now choose to send Americans into elective and unnecessary wars that could be avoided. Why? We have a volunteer army, so very few voters seem to truly care about the casualties. But the amendment was a good one and should have been passed. Anyone who may be sent into a war should be able to vote.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is another example of something originally opposed by Republicans but was eventually used to their advantage. President Lyndon Johnson convinced his own Democratic Party to support the bill because it was the right thing to do, even though it most certainly would cause them to become a minority party in the South. The Republicans understood what he meant. After his close victory in 1968, Nixon devoted the next four years to his infamous Southern Strategy: He out-Wallaced the popular segregationist Governor George Wallace in the South. Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1980 began in Philadelphia, Miss., where racist murders had taken place during the civil rights era, and he wasn’t there to appeal to black voters. White voters understood. In 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned against his fellow Republican John McCain in South Carolina at Bob Jones University (once known for its segregationist policies) while rumors were spread that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. Nixon’s Southern Strategy will no doubt continue to be popular among Republicans. It works. But it is still a good thing that the Civil Rights Act was passed with bi-partisan support.
The Republicans had a Senate version of Mr. Snyder’s House bill that was proposed by Orin Hatch of Utah. It was accurately referred to as the Schwarzenegger Amendment. Senator Hatch advocated that 20 be the number of years required before a naturalized citizen can run for President. He claimed that since it was introduced before the recall election in California that made Arnold governor that it was not written with Arnold in mind (hoping everyone will forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been mentioned as a likely gubernatorial candidate for years). The new governor, coincidentally of course, became a citizen in 1983.That made him eligible right then under Hatch’s bill, but not until 2018 under Snyder’s. It is good that the Republicans are willing to remove naturalized citizens from second-class status, but doing so because they sense they can get a specific vote-getter elected is the wrong reason to do it. We all know that the duties of the President were written by the Founding Fathers with George Washington in mind, but we all should have a problem with the Constitution being altered just to accommodate The Terminator.
An additional point needs to be made: We need to stop cheating ourselves from being able to utilize a potential pool of well-educated and highly qualified individuals from holding our highest office. Having only natural-born citizens as President has not assured us of getting the best minds or talents into the office. Republican party bosses selected Warren G. Harding to run in 1920 because he had no ideas and had no enemies, and the voters agreed that he looked like a president. The friends he appointed to high office were the biggest bunch of crooks the country had seen since the Grant administration after the Civil War. Richard Nixon appointed Republican Senate minority leader Gerald Ford to be his vice president after Spiro Agnew had to resign. Why Ford? Job security. Nixon thought he would not be impeached if it meant that a mediocre joke like Ford would be leading the free world from the Oval Office. At least Ford was a nice guy. Nixon wasn’t, and we got Ford. The performance of Bush II pretty much confirmed what one of his Harvard professors said of him. Yoshi Tsurumi, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, described him as having “pathological lying habits,” as being “cunning and vengeful,” and just “badly brought up, with no discipline, and no compassion.” The great attorney Clarence Darrow assessed our situation best: “When I was a boy, I was told that anyone could be president. I am beginning to believe it.”
The Constitution should only be amended to extend rights to groups previously excluded and/or to correct a flaw in the original document that has become apparent over time. Representative Snyder’s The President and Vice President Eligibility for Office Bill would do both of these. Twenty years is questionable and controversial, but thirty-five years as a citizen of this great country should be enough for any immigrant to remove any doubt from any skeptical native-born citizen’s mind as to his or her worthiness or loyalty. All U.S. citizens should have all the rights of U.S. citizens, so this should become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We have a problem though. Since we’ve gotten Republicans to stop thinking about Conan the Barbarian, it may be hard to get them motivated again to even think about it.
by David Offutt
This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published December 30, 2004, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.