On July 12, 1985, President Ronald Reagan underwent a colonoscopy procedure, administered by Dr. Edward Cattow. During the procedure, Dr. Cattow discovers tumors (polyps) which can be removed only by performing major surgery. Cattow presents Reagan an option: undergo the operation the following day, or schedule it a few weeks down the road. Having already undergone necessary preparations for the operation by preparing for the colonoscopy, Reagan elects to undergo surgery immediately and get it over with.
Aware of the public relations backlash with respect to the President's incapacity following his 1981 assassination attempt, that evening Reagan 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 the amendment might set an undesirable precedent, those he consulted with recommended invocation - if for no other reason than to avoid the criticism which followed not doing so four years earlier.
The decision made, Fielding was tasked with drafting two sets of letters. The first explicitly cited Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, while the other didn't; but both clearly constituted a declaration of incapacity as stipulated under Section 3. 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:"
Text of Letter Transmitted at 11:28 a.m.
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 an duties of this office.
May God bless this Nation and us all.
What Happened Next
For a little under eight hours, George Herbert Walker Bush served as Acting President of the United States. In keeping with the overall desire to downplay the seriousness of the situation, Acting President Bush spent the majority of his tenure 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.
Thanks to the wording of the first letter, over three decades later there remain presidential and constitutional scholars who, inexplicably, don't acknowledge the events of July 13, 1985 as an invocation of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment. This debate centers around two points: that Reagan didn't explicitly cite Section 3 in his letter transferring executive authority to Vice President Bush, and that in the final sentence of the first paragraph Reagan expressed his own personal reluctance to invoke the amendment: "I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one." This misguided notion is so widespread among 25th Amendment scholars that when George W. Bush invoked the amendment in 2002, many erroneously referred to 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 privately to yours truly by White House Counsel Fred Fielding in 2003 leave no doubt: Reagan fully intended to, and did, temporarily transfer his constitutional authorities under Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, installing George H.W. Bush as Acting President of the United States. This conclusion is based on seven key points:
- While Reagan's letter didn't explicitly reference Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, his actions clearly demonstrated his intent. After appropriate consultation, the President followed Section 3's procedures to the letter. There is no other basis for, or reason for, doing so except to invoke Section 3's provisions.
- The first paragraph of the 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, and whether he specifically cited Section 3 or not is immaterial as, again, he's declared himself disabled following the 25th Amendment's procedures exactly.
- The second paragraph expressed Reagan's doubts about invoking the 25th Amendment, but doesn't state an intention not to actually do so. The last sentence - one of the key points of contention in this controversy - is merely a statement of opinion, and not one of interpretation of intent.
- Had Reagan real questions regarding the 25th Amendment or its implementation, let alone doubt that "the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one," all he needed to have done to get answers would have been to pick up a telephone and call the amendment's chief architect, former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who then (and as of January 2018, remains) very much alive and well.
- Another parsed sentence in the third paragraph, "not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this office in the future..." is also often cited as evidence that President Reagan didn't intend to install Vice President Bush as Acting President. But as with the preceding paragraph, it's a statement of Reagan's personal wishes rather than one with interpretive intent. The criticism that came following Reagan's 1981 assassination attempt and the failure to invoke the 25th Amendment left Reagan and his advisors sensitive to repeating the error. Reagan generally believed invoking the amendment in this instance was doing so under less than emergency circumstances. As such, he was reluctant to invoke it out of fear that every time a President underwent a medical procedure, the expectation would be that the 25th Amendment is to be invoked. Ironically, in the next two cases where Section 3 would be invoked, executive authority was transferred prior to a colonoscopy procedure - of the very type Reagan had already undergone the day before.
- 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 vest the powers and duties of his office in Bush, installing him temporarily as Acting President.
- Finally, while researching material for Amendment25.com in early 2003, yours truly contacted long-time White House Counsel Fred Fielding, who drafted both sets of letters reviewed by Reagan in this episode. Asked point-blank if what transpired had installed George H.W. Bush as Acting President of the United States, Fielding gave an unequivocal, concise answer in the affirmative: "Yes."
Letter Transmitted at 7:22 p.m.
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.