Secrets of Scandal: Happy Birthday, Mr. President

By Jess Brownell, Researcher | Dec 7th, 2012

Vice President Sally LangstonThis week’s Scandal took a dark turn as President Grant received a very unwelcome surprise while walking into his birthday gala. Unfortunately the surprise didn’t involve revelers in party harts or a send-up of “This is Your Life” put on by friends and family. No, upon arrival at his birthday party, President Grant faced shots by an unknown assailant, shots that eventually took the life of Press Secretary Britta Kagen and left Fitz in unknown jeopardy. Not unlike a game of “This is Your Life,” this episode also took us back into the past, as we flashed back to the first months of Fitz’s presidency, when Fitz and Olivia’s romance was at its peak, to uncover what exactly made Liv leave the White House!

...But hopefully you caught the episode, because in today’s review of the facts, figures, and headlines that inspired our storylines, we’re focusing on the present day, taking a closer look at all the political drama happening in the wake of Fitz’s shooting.

So, what happens when a President is incapacitated, and unable to discharge his duties without notice? Oh, there’s an app for that.  Er, an amendment, rather. The 25th amendment of the Constitution, adopted in 1967, provides a few handy guidelines and procedures in times of uncertainty. The amendment is divided up into four sections, the first two of which deal with presidential succession and how to fill a vice presidential vacancy, respectively. The third section describes the procedure by which the President can temporarily transfer his or her powers and duties to the Vice President during times of incapacity. This section has been invoked several times in history; for example, in 2002, President George W. Bush had to undergo anesthesia for a colonoscopy and temporarily transferred his powers to Vice President Cheney to make sure everything would (hypothetically) run smoothly should a national emergency strike while Bush was under. This third section covers a decision to transfers power that is made by the President in anticipation of a potential loss of capacity. The fourth section, however, deals with a transfer of power that must be made when the President’s incapacity comes on without any warning, leaving him unable to make the transfer himself. 

Thankfully, this fourth section of the amendment has never been invoked. Vice President George H.W. Bush came very close to invoking the fourth section in 1981, when shots were fired at President Reagan by crazed, Jodie-Foster-obsessed gunman John Hinckley. While Reagan was undergoing surgery to remove a bullet that struck his side, papers were drafted up to transfer powers to the VP. But Bush wanted to be very careful not to alert the nation, and by the time he had returned to DC from a trip to Texas, the President was already out of surgery and recovering nicely, rendering the papers unnecessary.

But should the fourth section of the 25th amendment need to be invoked, the process is as such: the Vice President, together with a majority of the Cabinet (which includes the 15 heads of the executive departments, like the Secretary of State and Attorney General) must submit a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate declaring that the President is unable to discharge his powers and duties. At that time, the Vice President immediately assumes the role of Acting President. In this episode, Olivia and Cyrus grow very nervous as Sally begins drumming up the support of the Cabinet to have presidential power transferred to her. Now, certainly, Sally’s not in the wrong to invoke the 25th athmendment during this national crisis, but because the fourth section has never been put into play in our nation’s history, it’s not a surprise that Olivia and Cyrus are wary. Especially in light of the fact that Sally lands her helicopter on the South Lawn, which historically was meant to be the landing spot for only the President (in fact, while Reagan was in the hospital, Vice President Bush famously refused to land on the South Lawn, preferring instead to land at his home at the Naval Observatory).

Olivia knows her best chance at fighting Sally’s bid for the Acting Presidency is to do what she does best – a little spin control. By putting Mellie on camera to reassure the nation that she is okay and that Fitz is indeed still alive, Olivia shifts the public opinion to give Sally pause before she gets too hasty.  But the hard facts of Fitz’s condition ultimately dictate how this crisis will play out. When Olivia learns that the doctors have no idea how long it will take for Fitz to recover from his head wound, she knows that their fight against Sally is over. Sally becomes the first person in history to enact the fourth section of the 25th amendment and takes over as Acting President.

And in a last twist, we flash back to the shooting and go into the hotel room where the shots were fired, to see – shock of all shocks – Huck disassembling the gun! Sally’s in charge in the White House and Huck’s disassembling the gun that shot the Presdent – it’s about time for pigs to fly. Stay tuned for next week’s episode to see what other incredible twist and turns the future holds!