Column: Three Heart Beats Away

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia.

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'Tis the season for reflection (not again, ugh). Some wish to turn the clock back to 1980, others to the 1948 election, or to 1947. I'd like to start this historical journey in 1972, July 28th to be precise. 10 a.m. By that time in American history, our nation had well learned that segregation was wrong, yet we also knew that some of our political leaders were not yet repentant regarding their past (and contemporary) wrongs. Martin Luther King had been dead for over four years, but George Wallace was still in the midst of a quest to win influence in national politics, an influence decidedly adverse to the cause of civil rights.

So at the appointed hour an election is to take place. An election for President. Let's see, there are two candidates. Republican Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania has put forth to name of Senator George Aiken for President. Aiken is a Vietnam war skeptic ("We should declare victory and leave"), and a liberal as far as Republicans go. He has consistently supported the cause of civil rights.

The Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Mike Mansfield puts forth his party's candidate for president. His candidate is James Eastland, a senator from Mississippi. Eastland is a patriot (in terms of the Vietnam conflict), a conservative, and an outspoken (and unrepentant) champion of racial segregation in America.
He had addressed a rally of the White Citizens Council in 1956 saying, "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives...."(Quoted by historian Robert Caro,

And the winner is....With the votes of senators with names such as McGovern, Kennedy (Teddy), Mansfield, Muskie, Fulbright, Jackson, Humphrey, Hart (Phil), Ervin and the rest of the Democratic senate (majority) contingent it is clear cut: Senator James Eastland is elected president.

Hypothetical, a fantasy. Absolutely not. Check out page 25905 of the Congressional Record, July 28, 1972. The office was not the President of the United States (the office sought by Strom Thurmond in 1948), but rather the President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate. But then, that office was not too far removed from the White House--it was just three heart beats away.

The liberal Democrat establishment actually choose to place James Eastland in a position to be the president of the United States, if there but be an accident or disaster. Just think, perhaps the vice presidency could have been vacated by a scandal, then James Eastland would only be two heart beats away from the presidency as a result of the votes of the Democrat liberal establishment. Perhaps, the president himself could have been engrossed in a scandal that could have led to a resignation, or maybe the president could have had a serious health crisis--maybe a phlebitis attack causing his total disability or death. Then the Democrat liberal establishment would have put James Eastland but a single heartbeat away from being president. The one heart beat could have been that of a Speaker of the House who had had a major heart attack, say, maybe six years before. How close was James Eastland to becoming our president? Do the names Agnew, Nixon, and Albert have any meaning? Close!

On the other hand, there could be an assassination or a terrorist attack. These things can happen, you know. Tragically, after September 11, we know very well that these kinds of things DO happen. If they had happened thirty years ago, the Democrat liberal establishment of the United States Senate would have caused James Eastland to be the president of the United States of America.

Senator James Eastland served as the President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate, three heart beats from the presidency of the United States for six years--until he left the Senate in 1979.

This is not to place blame on Democrats alone (although they love to do the reverse). In 1981, January 5, 10 a.m. to be precise, there was another election. Republican senators did elect Strom Thurmond President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate. Their new majority gave him the victory over the candidate of the Democratic establishment. Minority leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia had nominated another senator on behalf of his liberal colleagues. A good solid representative of the civil rights movement? A Kennedy, a Levin, a Bayh, a Proxmire a Biden? No the Democrat candidate was Senator John Stennis, another segregationist from Mississippi.

Thurmond served as President Pro Tempore from 1981 through 1987, when the Democrat majority did elect Stennis.

Stennis served for two years until he left the Senate. A member of the House of Representatives named Trent Lott took the Stennis seat in the Senate, but being in the minority party, he did not become President Pro Tempore. Indeed, we should recognize that Mr. Lott's arrival in the Senate resulted in the position of President Pro Tempore being taken away from his segregationist state. The new President Pro Tempore in 1987 was Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who still used the "N" word in public. Byrd and Thurmond traded the office back and forth until the end of 2002, each taking their turns at being but "three heartbeats away" from actually holding the presidency of the United States of America. Their place was given to each by the acquiescence of the senators from their parties--liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

A Paradox

I find it totally incredible that a senator has been driven out of a leadership position because he suggested that someone the ilks of a Thurmond, and Eastland, or a Stennis or Byrd might have made a good president, when the full membership of the Senate had actually voted to make these individuals but for a tragic accident, attack, or illnesses (or scandals) the president of the United States of America. Yet I have never heard one word of condemnation of a Kennedy or a Kerry or a Levin for what had to be totally stupid votes to elevate abject segregationists to positions so near to the epicenter of power in the United States.

Yet my Democrat friends--who had told me they wished Trent Lott to remain majority leader because it would help them in the 2004 election--told me also that the position of President Pro Tempore is really just a figure head, honorary position given to the oldest senator of the majority party, that the office means nothing. WRONG! The office is "three heart beats away."

Beginnings of the Position--The Early Phase

The position of President Pro Tempore is established in the United States Constitution. The words "pro tempore," simply mean "for the time being." Article I, Section 5 proclaims that the Senate shall chose "a president pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he (the Vice President) shall exercise the office of President of the United States."

The Constitution also gave Congress the power to determine who should hold the powers of the presidency if that office and the office of vice president are both vacant. In 1792--Congress determined that the President Pro Tempore would be the person that would exercise the powers of the presidency in such a situation. In turn, if the President Pro Tempore was not available, the powers would pass to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In early years the President Pro Tempore was given extra powers regarding committee appointments, but soon these powers were removed so that the position is simply one with presiding functions--and of course a position in the line of succession.


Until 1890, the position was filled only when the Senate was in session, as this was the only time it would be necessary for a senator to preside over the body. An extreme danger lurked in the land as a result. When Congress was adjourned during several presidencies, the country was without an heir apparent should something have happen to the president: during the presidencies of James Madison (whose vice president, Eldbrige Gerry had died in 1814), Andrew Jackson (because of the resignation of John Calhoun as vice president), John Tyler (who was a vice president who succeed to the presidency on the death of William Henry Harrison), Millard Fillmore (who ascended to presidency on death of Zachary Taylor), Franklin Pierce (whose vice president William King died shortly after inauguration), Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Abraham Lincoln), Grant (whose vice president, Henry Wilson, died in his second term), Arthur (who ascended to presidency after the assassination of James Garfield), Grover Cleveland (whose vice president Thomas Hendricks died in the first year of his first term). The unspeakable almost did happen. John Tyler was aboard a yacht that experienced an explosion. He survived but two cabinet members were killed--we did come that close to having the crisis of a vacancy.

The realization that there was no legally designated person to take over the presidency during part of Cleveland's term led the next Congress to change the order of succession. In 1886 Congress reviewed succession and took the President Pro Tempore and Speaker of the House off the list.

In the 94 years when the President Pro Tempore was but two heart beats away (and in the cases indicated above when there was no vice president, but one heart beat away), 55 senators occupied the post. One served before 1792. The first President Pro Tempore of the Senate was Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire. During the second Congress when the 1792 succession act was passed the post was held by Langdon and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. The 53 other names on the list are for the most part not distinguishable to casual observers of American history--names like Jacob Reed of South Carolina, John Laurence of New York, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, Jesse Franklin of North Carolina, and Andrew Gregg of Pennsylvania.

But some interesting names also appear. William Crawford served in the post before he ran for president in 1824, a campaign that effectively denied Andrew Jackson an electoral college majority that year. Ironically, John Tyler was the President Pro Tempore prior to his election as vice president and his ascendancy to the presidency where he served without either a vice president or for a considerable time without a President Pro Tempore either.

William King of Alabama was in the position before his election as vice president under Pierce. His death at the start of Pierce's term meant that this great president also had to serve much of his term without any successor available if he became unable (perhaps through his drinking bouts) to do the duties of the presidency. David Atchinson of Missouri served as President Pro Tempore, and perhaps by holding the post was also the de jure (if not de facto) acting president on March 4, 1849. The day was a Sunday, and both Zachary Taylor and Millard Filmore refused to take their oaths of office on a Sunday, the day that the term of James Polk ended. It is rumored that Atchinson a hearty "party man" had tied a good one on that Saturday night, and after coming to his boarding house fell fast and deep asleep--awaking on Monday morning.

Benjamin Wade of Ohio was President Pro Tempore at the time of the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Had an impeachment conviction been rendered in the Senate (it lost by a single vote), Wade would have become president. Wade voted for conviction. Senator David Davis was an independent. However, he made his fame by an act of political dexterity. In 1877 he resigned from a seat on the U.S.Supreme Court to avoid being made the tie breaking representative of a special commission to rule on the legitimacy of electoral votes in the 1876 election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes. His resignation was accompanied by his selection to be a U.S. Senator by the Illinois legislature. Five years later he was President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

The Interlude of Unimportance

After the death of Cleveland's vice president, a change in succession was set into place by an act in 1886. Sentiment held that the line of succession should be of the same party as the president, and also executive experience as rendered with cabinet experience would be valuable for anyone assuming duties of the presidency. The line of succession went to cabinet offices as then existing starting with state, treasury, war and justice, and following in order of the creation of the office.

Nineteen senators served as President Pro Tempore until 1947 under this arrangement, with the office being out of the line of succession. Most were little remembered senators. In their numbers were Isham Harrison of Tennessee, George Moses of New Hampshire, Pat Harrison of Mississippi, and Key Pittman of Nevada. Nevadans of course remember (rather--try to forget) Pittman, an alcoholic who not only held from 1933 to 1941 the then almost meaningless (thank god) position of President Pro Tempore, but also the very very important post as chair of the foreign relations committee. On more than one occasion he showed up at a meeting with President Roosevelt and foreign high dignitaries completely and obviously plastered. The interregnum of unimportance also included moments of service by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and future Vice President Charles Curtis. Curtis, a Republican (emphasis to be made explicit) has been the only minority (Native American) to have held so high a post in our government.

Power Restored--The Latter Years.

Notwithstanding the record of his Senate colleague Key Pittman, President Truman wanted the post of President Pro Tempore back on the succession list.

Within a month of Harry Truman's rise to the presidency, he expressed the belief that no person holding the duties of the presidency should do so unless he (or she) had been first subject to the electoral process. He thought that members of Congress fit that bill, but cabinet members did not. He felt it would be embarrassing to have a president (even if only an acting president) who has been personally selected by the president (e.g., a cabinet member). He urged a new succession line. He recommended that the line go--after vice president--to Speaker of House then President Pro Tempore. He wished also that a new election for president be held quickly.

The speaker at the time was the very popular Sam Rayburn. The House quickly passed a bill including his basic recommendation. (They did leave out his recommendation that a special election for a new president be called immediately after such a succession). The Senate, perhaps taken aback by the fact that their presiding officer was now placed behind the House speaker, balked. When Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina became secretary of state, they delayed further. However, in 1946, the Republicans secured majorities in both houses of Congress and the plan seemed to be politically acceptable to both houses, as succession would go next to a Republican rather than a Democrat of Truman's choosing. Truman signed the new succession act in 1947. It provided that after vice president, Speaker of the House, and President Pro Tempore came the cabinet offices in order that they were created, the first being the secretary of state.

With the essential power of the post restored--its status of being "but three hearts beats away" from the White House--the position fell into the hands of Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. The Republicans must today feel a sense of honor at having selected a giant to the post. Vandenberg served hand in hand with Roosevelt and Truman as the minority leader of the foreign relations committee in the Senate. In stark contrast to the drunken Pittman, Michigan's Vandenberg performed admirable service to the nation as the architect of bipartisanship in foreign policy at a most critical time in our history. He became the epitome of the remark that "Politics stops at the water's edge." (Contrast his role to that of President Pro Tempore Henry Cabot Lodge vis-a-vis Woodrow Wilson.)

The list of the President Pro Tempores since the 1947 act, however, belies the notion that true leadership or moral leadership was ever again to be a prerequisite for securing the position.

Examine the following list:

Arthur Vandenberg R, MI 1947-1949
Kenneth McKellar D. TN 1949-1953
Styles Bridges R, NH 1953-1955
Walter George D, GA 1956-1957
Carl Hayden D, AZ 1957-1969
Richard Russell D, GA 1969-1971
Allen Ellender D, LA 1971-1972
James Eastland D, MI 1972-1978
Warren Magnuson D, WA 1979-1980, 1980-1981
Milton Young R, ND 1980 (One Day)
Strom Thurmond R, SC 1981-1987, 1995-2001
John Stennis D, MS 1987-1989
Robert Byrd D, WV 1989-1995, 2001

While before the ascendancy of Strom Thurmond the Republicans at least put senators of stature and national acceptability in the position, the same, with an exception or two, cannot be said of the Democrats--including their great liberal base--ergo Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Theodore kennedy, George Mc Govern....

They did pick Carl Hayden, albeit at a time that he was a very very old (ok not ancient like Thurmond or Byrd) man, and they did pick Warren Magnuson for a short time as he was aging.

The other Democrats have all been persons from rank segregationist origins, and it might be suggested, segregationists at the time of their service. I will give Byrd a benefit of the doubt (something Democrats won't give to Republicans), his Ku Klux Klan service seems to be behind him--but how far behind. (Come to think of it Democrats are never bothered that their great president Harry Truman joined and then retracted his membership in the Klan, because he found the Klan had prejudices against Jewish people, and he had a Jewish business partner. I assume Truman knew of the bigotry the Klan had against AFRICAN AMERICANS). Albeit the case, the likes of Senators George, Russell. Ellender, Eastland, and Stennis must leave an indelible mark on the liberal leaders of the Democrat party today. I believe a freudian concept is in play re the Lott imbroglio. It is called "projection."

The case of the one day term of Milton Young brings some questions regarding integrity to mind. It was his last day in the Senate, so it was felt he should have a special honor. He had been in the Senate since 1945, some honor was certainly due. But it was such a stupid idea to honor a very old person when his service to the land is about to end with a post that would make him president in case of a tragedy such as occurred on 9-11. How stupid can our Senate be? But there was also probably some method in the madness. Was the one day appointment a pension salary grab? The President Pro Tempore does receive a higher salary than other senators. Maybe the senators received their pensions based upon "last salary." If so, the move would have been a blatant fraud on the American public. Hopefully, it wasn't.

Wither 2003

Lott had to go for reasons of effectiveness. He wears the sign of Cain, and he just ain't Able. He can't lead. But the majority leadership post is not the issue. In this day of world terrorism--a terrorism that targets the United States, we must have in the line of succession persons capable of becoming president and acting as need be. The current vice president has held a high cabinet position, and he has political visibility, he could serve. Dennis Hassert has demonstrated a measure of leadership that might suffice, in a pinch. Thurmond and Byrd would be out of the picture, and thank God, they now are out of the picture.

The Republicans in Senate must not now simply give the post to someone that is on some automatic list of deserving for past service, or length of service. My first choices are Elizabeth Dole and John McCain. Dole because among the senators (along with Warren) she has most extensive executive (cabinet and Red Cross) service, and also she put forth a national candidacy. McCain among all the Republican senators put forth the most credible national campaign. But then the Republicans would really be doing the nation a great service if they chose the one who would be most acceptable if it ever came to secession--Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Another idea or two--maybe the Republican Senate could play the "political card." They do not have to place a senator into the post of President Pro Tempore. That is not a constitutional requirement. They could select J. C. Watts. And my final idea--Congress should just pass a law taking the President Pro Tempore of the Senate off the list of posts in the line of succession to the presidency.

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More Comments:

R Conboy - 5/24/2003

The caucus vote to support Senator Eastland as the party's nominee for the post of President Pro Tem was argued against by Senator Phil Hart of Michigan. He rose in the caucus room as they were about to make it a unanimous vote and registered his nay vote. He stated that Eastland could not be president of the whole country given his racist, segregationist positions over the years. This was a noble action on Hart's part: Eastland was the chairman of Hart's major committee, Judiciary; the vote was a foregone conclusion and Hart's opposition would make no difference. Hart went against the advice of his colleages by making his position known. I do not know how he voted on the floor of the Senate or if it was a roll call vote.

Ray A. Nissen - 2/9/2003

I agree that the post needs to be adjusted for modern times and not just go to the most senior senator of the majority party. Can you imagine what would have happened in a national tragedy last year if Robert "KKK" Byrd had become President? I heard his dispicable remarks on Fox News Sunday. Oh! Pardon my ignorance of political reality. Mr. Byrd is a DEMOCRAT so he would have gotten a pass by the Democrats, the Civil Rights establishment, and the media (Dan, Peter, and Tom). Why is this man still in the Senate? Doesn't he have the class to resign?

They don't do that anymore since it is a career for them. That is not what the founders intended. Until about 1900, it was hard to get the Senators to stay for one six year term much less two. They had homes, farms, and businesses to attend to and did not keep a house in Washington for their families to stay with them. Their families stayed home and they stayed only long enought to take care of the nation's business and then they went home. Read your Senate history.

I saw a suggestion to correct this quirk in our system and the Senate could change it without a constitutional amendment. Like the House, make the Senate Majority Leader the President Pro Tem. The House Majority Leader is the House Speaker. What do you think of that?