• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Quadrennial Cleansing

November 2018

In due time, be it two years or six, the current occupant of the White House will take his leave. Such is the nature of this highest office in the land—this most estimable, brutal, and ultimately fleeting job.

It is, from its eager and zealous beginning to its hasty and arduous end, a beautifully transitory thing. Quite novel was its conception when it arrived in a world built of ancient empires, entrenched oligarchs, and hereditary kings. One was expected to hold—with an adamantine, desperate, and murderous grasp—the scepter and crown and never to relinquish them.

But we here in America demand that our leaders forgo—when democratically asked, that is—their thrones. If not with grace and quiet dignity, the president will be made to leave by necessity. It might ominously be said that no signs, thus far displayed, lend credence to the Pollyanna who thinks that this historically peculiar president of a man will take the first of these two routes. Should he gently and amicably step aside, however, we might all be proved wrong. That said, if he refuses to depart, or goes involuntarily or without his successor’s right at heart, he’ll revolutionize and scandalize America yet again.

Precedent, now as always, has a way of pressing upon its subject its mighty weight. The restraints imposed by a tradition—which can be, at times, burdensome and stifling and yet, at others, comfortingly consistent, resolute, and strong—won’t allow the radical his desired free rein. He is subdued in his pursuits and bound by our collective and hallowed past. Precedent is then, not unlike the ancient Greek conception of fate, an at once formidable and inescapable force, an omnipresent and vital chain.

First laid down by George Washington—who was, more than any other world leader before or since, equal parts paragon republican, warrior-farmer, and consummate Cincinnatus—it’s precedent that makes the presidency work. From the earliest days of the nation to those that were most fraught, it was a precedent had continued uninterrupted until the second of the two Roosevelts took the helm.

FDR, of course, decided to parlay the public’s support of his administration during a time of domestic fright and international war. He stretched into a condensed third term his busy presidency and, in so doing, set in place a new way of thinking about the office and its limits. Was this to be permitted—three, or four, or perhaps even five terms, so long as the man elected performed well? Neither before nor since has such an audacious and ultimately fugacious attempt been made to extend the life of a sitting president. Not that it needs saying, butFDR’s third term was tragically short-lived. He died of a hemorrhagic stroke in the spring of 1945 just as the second great War of the World was coming to its end. Most harrowing of American portraiture is that, unfinished and in watercolor, of the president on the very day of his death. Dour lips and forceful eyes stare out from a torso splashed with a mere lapel. The artist’s hand hadn’t a chance to finish the outlines of his suit; it was an extraordinary artistic, apoplectic end to an unimaginable life.

In a post-Rooseveltian age, strictures on a president’s tenure needed to be made and made they were, with the ratification of theTwenty-Second Amendment in the year 1951. Now and forevermore, the president’s time as the chief-elected Executive would be circumscribed to an explicit allotment of years. This Amendment, accepted by the Congress nearly immediately afterRoosevelt’s death, would serve as a timeframe befitting democrats rather than monarchs, men rather than immortals. It’s obvious that the Congress, after a year’s worth of reflection, realized that FDR’s third term was an expedient(and thus defensible for the moment) but ultimately an error that the nation ought not to repeat. Henceforth, no more than two terms or ten years (under extenuating and rare circumstances) would a president be permitted to serve in his, and doubtless in the near future, her role. After that, he’d be shown gratitude, deference and, most importantly, the door—never the first two without the latter.

This quadrennial cleansing of the White House, since installed, has been employed to great use. It’s the fail-safe against which the incipient tyrant has no recourse. Even still, we anxious Americans can’t help but look forward to that day two years from our own when this Amendment might be put to the test. Come 2020, the anticipation is that it’ll be strained.

Many jittering about, namely on the agitated and overwrought fringes of the left, think that the current president will forget Washington, mirror Roosevelt, and defy our hard-won Constitutional precedent. While it would make for exhilarating and disquieting theater, I doubt this will happen. In fact, I think President Trump will leave office after a second term, contented if not incontinent as he nears eighty years of age and the fully-flowering dotage of his life. He’ll gloat about the unexpected and now unsurpassed success that was his career and we’ll carry on with another woman or man.

The current occupant of the White House will surely take his leave, and we, a much-needed, perhaps even cathartic breath.

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