It’s the elephant in the living room that the candidates ignore as willfully as so many of us mere mortals, but as the 2008 Presidential race winnows down to a handful of inevitable electables, it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask: What if one of them dies?
We tend to forget now, but from 1963-81, pursuing the Presidency was a dead-certain way to get your life insurance coverage canceled. John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Bobby Kennedy was shot to death on the campaign trail in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles, a furniture salesman died by his own hand in a botched attempt to hijack an airplane and crash it into Richard Nixon’s White House, Gerald Ford had two women try and murder him within three weeks in California in 1975, and a sullen Jodie Foster fan very nearly took Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981. From a risk-assessment standpoint, aspiring or ascending to the Presidency was a vocation as potentially perilous to one’s mortality as working on an Alaskan fishing boat or being Geraldo Rivera’s food taster.
Even among those who didn’t die with their boots on, Lyndon Johnson aged before America’s eyes and died a broken and haunted man almost four years to the day of leaving office, the Happy Warrior Hubert Humphrey briefly considered a fourth run for the White House in 1976 before dying less than two years later with a bladder that resembled a Google Maps photo of industrial New Jersey, Paul Tsongas was dead within five years of almost nabbing the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination, and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, came into the White House young, fresh-faced, and vital, only to emerge eight years later Methuselah-white and looking as if he’d just seen Star Jones nude.
Getting there or being there, it’s not an easy job. For those of us who think we have it tough working eight or ten or twelve hours a day in a thankless and grinding work environment where our customers are never satisfied and our associates believe we could impossibly complicate a one-car funeral, we’ve got nothing. We can come home in the evening and pour ourselves an imperial pint of four parts vodka to two parts soda water and watch CSI reruns instead of having the media pepper us for the next two news cycles about how we didn’t cancel a purchase order quickly enough and cost a customer return freight and 25% restocking fees for a $1,216 special equipment order or watch endless footage of our raising a frustrated middle finger to the phone while enduring a six-minute tirade from a nearly-shrieking, menopausal client.
Work is easy. All things Presidential are hard. And, as far as the hunters are concerned, it’s never harder than it is in 2008. The media are relentless, the travel is brutal, you’re constantly begging for money, and every word and gesture is run through a 276-point computer analysis. And everywhere you turn, someone wants to end you, either literally or figuratively.
That’s the kind of grief that would kill an ordinary man or woman.
So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one of our current presumptives could, God forbid, leave this year’s campaign season in a mahogany box or an urn.
What happens then? Well, it’s fairly obvious on the Democratic side: It solves a lot of problems that we’ve spent the last several weeks about. But God help Hillary if something happens to Barack. There’s already been a whisper campaign for years about her putting a slug in Vince Foster’s head.
For the Republicans, it would be a convention free-for-all, and it would be mayhem. Just when you thought you wouldn’t have Mitt Romney to kick around anymore. Mike Huckabee would be emboldened, thinking he had been bequeathed the miracle he’d been praying for. Giuliani’s ego would be sufficiently recovered by then that he’d be fully capable of the same delusions that made him think he could be President in the first place. It would be the 2003 California Gubernatorial Recall all over again, with every fringe delegation scheming at the convention to get their man to the top of the ticket. You could even have one of those conventions of yore where 30, 35, 40 ballots would pass before the brass ring gets handed to someone who was still at home eight states away when the first ballot was cast.
In short, it would be the only way the GOP convention is going to get any TV viewership this year.
For both parties, it gets a little murkier the closer you get to the election. If the election is too close for the ballots to be changed, it’s very likely that a dead person would win the race. The party would decide the replacement, and the opposing party would dispatch an army of lawyers that could fill a Division 2A college football stadium and tie the election up until the midterms.
The closest we’ve ever come to such a scenario was in 1912 when Vice President James Schoolcraft Sherman died less than a week before the election, and nearly 3 million people voted for his cooling carcass. Of course the question was moot as William Howard Taft lost the election anyway.
If the President-elect drops between election and inauguration, the 20th Amendment says that the Vice President-elect is sworn in on Inauguration Day. Curiously, this amendment was almost immediately put into effect in 1933, just 23 days after its ratification, when clumsy Giuseppe Zangara slipped off his chair and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, instead of President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was at Cermak’s side.
Of course, I wish all of the candidates nothing but the healthiest and heartiest of tenures, whichever one wins–if for no other reason than we don’t have to see Mitt Romney skulking around again or have to endure another five or ten years of Clinton conspiracy theories. And besides, we’re all going to be very tired of Chris Matthews by then, if we’re not already.