Monday, October 16, 2017

The 25th and the 45th--on 3Quarks

What happens when you get a bunch of lawyers together to discuss the possibility of a coup d'état? A Constitutional coup d'état?

Don't faint. To the obvious disappointment of a journalist who attended, this wasn't some Trotskyite meeting in a small room with nicotine-stained walls, but a conference at the Fordham University School of Law, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the 25th Amendment "Continuity in the Presidency: Gaps and Solutions. Building on the Legacy of the 25th Amendment."

Lawyers being lawyers, there was a lot of talking and hypothesizing and arcana, spiced up with some name-dropping of the still and once-famous, and more than a little inside baseball. I can't do justice to the whole story, but it makes for fascinating hearing: How Birch Bayh, then Indiana's junior Senator and 99th in Senatorial seniority, managed to keep alive the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments without money or space (they met in a tiny converted bathroom) and apply his extraordinary tact to accomplish something people thought impossible. How the ABA, then a considerably smaller and less influential group still tainted by a prior obsession with Communists in the profession, saw this issue as both the right and strategically important thing to do, and provided support in Washington and critical infrastructure at the state level. And how John Feerick, as a lawyer in his mid-20s (later Dean of Fordham Law School, and a featured speaker at the conference), had an Orson-Welles-makes-Citizen-Kane moment when he managed to have published and distributed a Fordham Law Review article on Presidential Succession—in October 1963—and became an instant authority when national tragedy the very next month made it relevant.

Feerick's issue was ripe and had been discussed for decades, but JFK's assassination gave the reform efforts an energy that had previously been lacking. Yet success was also due in no small part to Bayh and Feerick's insight that the enemy of the good was the perfect. They remained disciplined and focused on the two issues that were critical, filling Vice Presidential vacancies, regardless of their cause, and the voluntary or involuntary (but possibly temporary) replacement of the President due to incapacity. Because these were largely apolitical, freshly and painfully in the public eye, and perceived to be of national importance, the pair were able to convince many in Congress to put aside technical differences and turf disputes to reach consensus.

It might seem bizarre to our modern eyes, which are accustomed to seeing Vice Presidents orating, spinning, showing up at national disasters, and walking out of football games, but for 180-odd years, the Vice Presidency was a wasting asset. Once you used it up, it was gone. And Vice Presidential vacancies were common—VPs either ascended to the Presidency, or "went to a better place." James Madison seemed to have a particularly ghoulish effect on his choices—both were lost to history on his watch. And few people cared all that much. The Vice Presidency was seen as an afterthought and even a bit of a joke. John Nance Gardner, FDR's Veep from 1933-1941 (and former Speaker of the House, a real job), famously called it "not worth a warm bucket of piss" and he was probably exaggerating its virtues.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Lumber-Room of My Library--On 3Quarks

What are you reading?

A friend asked me that question recently, and I almost found myself stumped. 

Reading isn't skimming. It's not staring at a screen, spasmodically flipping back and forth between the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Barron's,, Foreign Policy, NRO and anything else to which Twitter would lead. It's certainly not dipping myself into the digital inkwell of the Comments section, finding something to be outraged about, and letting it fly. That's not even writing, much less reading for content.
So, what was I reading? Books. I need books, something to stimulate my brain instead of my adrenals. I could, as I have done countless times, head to Strand and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that might pique my interest. There's always something at Strand. Fiction, non-fiction, history, science, art, architecture and music, tomes on various topics. I am a serious tome fan, and Strand is the place where you can amuse yourself just by scanning the blurbs. "Professor Throckmanshire has produced the definitive work on mid-18th Century Cornish snuffboxes." If that doesn't appeal….

Yet, I have enough books. I know, you can never have enough, but I live in a Manhattan apartment, and, short of tethering rucksacks of them to the outside of the windows (a practice frowned upon by both the City and the co-op board) there isn't a lot of space. The bedrooms are filled with them, the living room stuffed. They are piled up on surfaces and double-deep in built-ins. Of course, a few more wouldn't hurt, but a few more are always arriving—gifts from family and friends, odds and ends on which I couldn't resist spending the kids' tuition money. And the dirty secret was I hadn't read them all yet. I'd been too busy feeding my political obsessions. I didn't need to go to Strand—there was plenty to harvest here at home. Clearly, it wasn't the quantity of books; I was falling down on the reading of them.

There was my problem, and my solution. So, I made my way through the vast expanse of my palatial residence looking for ideas—different ones than those that had distracted me for the last year. I started in my daughter's room. Plenty of options, not all entirely interesting to a man of my years. Some were clearly a no. Books on classical music…possible, but perhaps a little esoteric. The contents of my son's room just didn't inspire. Our bedroom…eh, and there was the omnipresent risk of raising dust if I probed too deeply. The living room held the treasures, if I could just get through the piles and obstructions, the vintage speakers, and, occasionally, the plants.

There's a strange feeling when you do this, going from volume to volume, topic to topic. It's almost like reliving past relationships. This love-interest lasted about three months. This one, somewhat longer, but didn't she dump you because you never understood her, or was it that she didn't understand you? Here's a passion that never quite left, and these few…what exactly was I thinking when I made the time and the space?

Books are tactile as well—they have a heft to them, a certain solidity in the hand that promises inspiration, knowledge, or just entertainment. A book is a book, not just a collection of electrons. You don't click your way around a library; you have to be purposeful. I stretched and peered and craned, as if in an archeological dig, getting down on hands and knees, pulling out the double-stacked ones to expose those behind, looking for something to grab me. I was tempted by two recent gifts, the first on World War II's Operation Mincemeat, and a second, Founding Rivals. Almost there, but was I ready to dive back into non-fiction quite this early? Finally, I rounded a bend and removed some science fiction and a book on chess to unearth the treasures behind. I found myself at #221B Baker Street.

Old love, but definitely loved. Two volumes, the dust covers long gone, the bindings cracked and worn, pages yellowed, even uncharacteristic markings on some of the paragraphs in my uniquely indecipherable handwriting. I don't think I had touched them in 15 years or so, when I was reading them out loud (in my best Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce voices) to my son. These would do. A few adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his amanuensis, Dr. John H. Watson, late of Afghanistan.