Bruce’s History Lessons: Ronald Reagan and Section Four of the 25th Amendment

AP/FileTough question: In this March 19, 1987, file photo, President Ronald Reagan taps his forehead at the White House while responding to a reporter’s question during a news conference.

Ronald Reagan, born last week (Feb. 6) in 1911, was, at 74 years old, the then-oldest serving president when he faced the biggest scandal of his presidency, the Iran-Contra affair. Old age can take its toll, and Reagan also had several physical ailments, including nearly dying four years earlier from an assassination attempt during his first year in office.

All those factors undoubtedly contributed to his erratic behavior at the height of Iran-Contra. Reagan was suspected of having known of, and perhaps directed, the secret sales of arms to Iran, and using the proceeds to secretly fund the Contras, a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the pro-Soviet Sandinista government in Nicaragua, both of which violated U.S. law. Consequently, Reagan seemed confused, distracted and inept. He refused to read position papers, and came to work sporadically, spending much of his time watching old movies. When members of Reagan’s White House staff complained about Reagan’s inattentiveness, his chief of staff, Howard Baker, was asked to consider whether invoking Section Four of the 25th Amendment might be warranted.

Never in American history had Section Four been invoked, which states that if the vice president and “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments [the Cabinet] or of such other body as Congress may by law provide,” should notify the Senate president pro tempore and House speaker they believe the president cannot perform his duties, then the vice president becomes “acting president,” until the president is recovered (assuming that occurs).

Baker gave the matter serious consideration and kept a watchful eye on Reagan, but ultimately decided there wasn’t enough of an aberration in Reagan’s behavior to launch what would be an unprecedented and controversial action.

However, in 1985, a small growth in his colon necessitated invasive surgery that would incapacitate Reagan for an indeterminate period of time, so Reagan decided, through a signed letter separate from the official invocation of Section Three, to unofficially invoke Section Three of the 25th Amendment, in which he is required to notify the Senate’s president pro tempore and speaker of the House that he would be temporarily unable to perform his presidential duties, meaning the vice president would replace him until he was able to perform them.

A school of thought later emerged that Reagan’s behavior during Iran-Contra proved he then had the Alzheimer’s that would eventually kill him, but neither Baker, nor Reagan’s doctors, nor those who regularly worked closely with him, thought that was the case. Throughout his presidency Reagan occasionally dozed off in meetings, often delegated to others and was famous for his indifference to detail. It may have been more noticeable and frequent during Iran-Contra, but it was nothing new.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net @BruceKauffmann.

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