July 13, 1985
Reagan Invokes Section 3
On July 12, 1985, President Ronald Reagan underwent a colonoscopy procedure, administered by Dr. Edward Cattow. Through it, Dr. Cattow discovered existence of a tumor (polyp) which could be removed only by performing major surgery.
Cattow gave Reagan an option: undergo the operation immediately, or schedule it a few weeks down the road. Having already undergone necessary preparations for the operation by preparing for the colonoscopy, Reagan elected to undergo surgery immediately.
That evening, he consulted with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, Attorney General Edwin Meese, Vice President George H.W. Bush and White House Counsel Fred Fielding, discussing whether or not the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment should be invoked.
While Reagan thought invoking Section 3 might set an undesirable precedent, those he consulted with recommended invocation - particularly in light of their failure to invoke the 25th Amendment following the March 1981 assassination attempt, an incident where the administration was roundly criticized for not doing so.
The decision made, Fielding was tasked with drafting two sets of letters. The first explicitly mentioned Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, while the other didn't. Reagan reviewed them the following morning, and at 10:32 a.m. he signed the latter and ordered its transmission to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and Senate President Pro Tempore J. Strom Thurmond.
The letters were transmitted at 11:28 a.m., whereupon Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush became the first, official, "Acting President of the United States."
Letter Transmitted at 11:28 a.m.:
July 13, 1985
Dear Mr. Speaker (Dear Mr. President):
I am about to undergo surgery during which time I will be briefly and temporarily incapable of discharging the constitutional powers and duties of the office of President of the United States.
After consultation with my counsel and the Attorney General, I am mindful of the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and of the uncertainties of its application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity. I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one.
Nevertheless, consistent with my long-standing arrangement with Vice President George Bush, and not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this office in the future, I have determined and it is my intention and direction that Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead commencing with the administration of anesthesia to me in this instance.
I shall advise you and the Vice President when I determine that I am able to resume the discharge of the constitutional powers and duties of this office.
May God bless this Nation and us all.
Letter Transmitted at 7:22 p.m.:
July 13, 1985
Dear Mr. Speaker (Dear Mr. President):
Following up on my letter to you of this date, please be advised that I am able to resume the discharge of the constitutional powers and duties of the office of the President of the United States. I have informed the Vice President of my determination and my resumption of those powers and duties.
For 7 hours and 50 minutes, George Herbert Walker Bush acted as President of the United States. In keeping with the overall desire to downplay the seriousness of the situation, Bush spent the majority of his tenure as Acting President playing tennis with friends and family members.
President Reagan's operation was successful, and he was brought out of sedation in mid-afternoon. While some advisors recommended that Bush continue to act as President for a few days while Reagan recovered, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and others felt it imperative that Reagan resume office as soon as possible. Reagan acquiesced to these advisors, signing the letter restoring him to power and ordering its transmission to appropriate Congressional leaders.
Ironically, due to the wording of the first letter, over three decades later there remain presidential and constitutional scholars who don't see this as an invocation of the 25th Amendment. This debate centered around the final sentence of the second paragraph of the letter, namely "I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one."
The confusion was such that when, in 2002, George W. Bush invoked the amendment, many erroneously cited it as the first invocation of Section 3's provisions. However, an examination of the facts surrounding the situation, the text of Reagan's invocation letter, and statements made both publicly and to Amendment25.com by White House Counsel Fred Fielding leave no doubt: Reagan fully intended to, and did, temporarily transfer his constitutional authorities under Section 3 of the 25th Amendment.
This conclusion is predicated on seven key points:
(1) While Reagan's letter didn't specifically cite Section 3, his actions clearly demonstrated his intent. After appropriate consultation, Reagan followed Section 3's procedures to the letter. There is no other basis for, or reason for, doing so but to invoke Section 3's provisions.
(2) The first paragraph of his letter clearly stated "I will be briefly and temporarily incapable of discharging the constitutional powers and duties of the office of President of the United States." This language mimics the phrasing of the 25th Amendment, almost word for word.
(3) The second paragraph expressed Reagan's doubt about invoking the amendment, but doesn't state an intention not to do so. The last sentence - the one which caused confusion - is a statement of opinion, and not one of interpretation of intent.
(4) Had Reagan real questions about the 25th Amendment, or any doubt that "the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one," he needed only to have picked up a telephone and called its chief architect: former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who then (and of March 2017, remains) very much alive and well.
(5) Another parsed sentence in the third paragraph, "not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this office in the future..." is often cited as evidence that Reagan didn't intend to transfer executive authority. But as with the second paragraph, it's a statement of Reagan's personal wishes rather than one with interpretive intent. The firestorm of criticism that came after Reagan's 1981 assassination attempt and the failure to invoke the 25th Amendment left Reagan and his advisors sensitive to repeating the error.
Reagan believed invocation in this case was doing so under less than emergency circumstances, and as such, was reluctant to invoke it out of fear that every time a President underwent a medical procedure, it'd be seen as necessary to transfer executive authority. Ironically, in the next two cases where Section 3 of the 25th Amendment were invoked, such authority was transferred prior to a colonoscopy procedure - of the very type Reagan had already undergone in this instance.
(6) In the same sentence as the "not intending to set a precedent" line, the letter again unequivocally states "I have determined and it is my intention and direction that Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead... in this instance." As with the opening paragraph, this is a clear statement of Reagan's intention to transfer executive authority, installing Bush as Acting President.
(7) Finally, in researching material for Amendment25.com, the site's author contacted Fred Fielding, the White House Counsel who drafted the letters Reagan signed and had transmitted in accordance with the 25th Amendment. Asked point-blank if it was the President's intent to transfer executive authority to Vice President Bush, Fielding gave an unequivocal answer in the affirmative.