It is the most glaring contradiction in our Constitution: a nation of immigrants that excludes anyone who is not born in the United States from becoming president. While long criticized, it went largely unchallenged until Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California and his fans discovered that he couldn’t become “The Presinator” because of his Austrian birth.
It is hardly the stuff that inspiring constitutional movements are made of, but, then again, one takes what one can get when it comes to constitutional reform.
The problem is found in Article II, Section 1, which limits the presidency to “a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution,” who is at least 35 years old and has been a U.S. resident for 14 years.
Many historians believe this rule was created by opponents of Alexander Hamilton to keep him from being president because of his birth in the West Indies. Though this was likely an interest of some framers, Hamilton could have claimed eligibility since he was a citizen when the Constitution was adopted and had been a resident for 15 years.
The main purpose of the provision appears to be simple insecurity. The United States was a young country surrounded by foreign conspiracies — real and imagined. The concern was that a foreign-born leader could lead the country back under English rule.
The eligibility provision was written for a different people and a different time. It now strikes a decidedly xenophobic note in an otherwise inclusive document. More important, the exclusion is an insult to the immigrants who built this nation — 20 million since 1907.
The ‘Arnold factor’
The “Arnold factor” has helped push this issue to the forefront, but it may also distort the debate. This month, TV ads will start to run in favor of a constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, the sponsors are Schwarzenegger zealots, and the ad is framed around him.
It is doubtful that such a cult of personality will sway the needed two-thirds of both houses of Congress or three-fourths of the states needed to amend the Constitution. Indeed, another group has announced its own ads opposing the “Arnold amendment.” A far better argument is found in the simple fact that the eligibility requirement is anti-American and illogical.
If applied strictly, the rule could have been used to challenge the very founders of our nation. Technically, George Washington was not a citizen when the Constitution was adopted because ratification was completed by the first nine states, which did not include Virginia. Likewise, our second president, John Adams, spent 1778-88 in Paris and other foreign capitals, raising some question as to whether he was in residency for 14 years.
From that dubious beginning, the provision became even more curious as it denied the nation some of our best and brightest. Consider a brief list of citizens barred:
• More than 700 immigrants who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery in war, or any of the 60,000 immigrants currently serving in our military in Iraq and elsewhere.
• U.S. business and intellectual giants such as industrialist Andrew Carnegie (Scotland) and economist John Kenneth Galbraith (Canada).
• Past Cabinet members, including three secretaries of State: Christian Herter (France), Henry Kissinger (Germany) and Madeleine Albright (Czech Republic).
• Leading politicians, including the governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm (Canada) and Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. (Hungary).
Given our dismal crop of homegrown candidates from the two major parties, citizens should be struggling to expand the pool of candidates. Heck, if we are shopping in the entertainment area, we could have picked someone who really knows how to deliver a “girlie man” joke, such as Bob Hope (United Kingdom), or someone who can pronounce the penultimate syllable of words, such as Alex Trebek (Canada) of Jeopardy!
Diverse choices, indeed
If we really wanted the ultimate terminator, why an actor? Edward Teller (Hungary) actually gave us the H-Bomb, and Enrico Fermi (Italy) showed us how to cause chain reactions. Better yet, we had Adm. Hyman Rickover (Russia), who built the U.S. “Nuclear Navy.”
The list goes on and on. The current rule constitutes a form of reverse Darwinism: We actually exclude those who have proved themselves, against the greatest odds, by sheer will and intellect. Instead, we favor the inbred progeny of the old guard, with inherited names and implied capabilities.
Current proposals would eliminate the absolute ban on foreign-born citizens in favor of a residency requirement — 20 or 35 years under two such plans.
In the end, amending the eligibility provision is an important act of self-definition. The provision reads like a constitutional version of an American Kennel Club certification for the purebred president. The fact is that we are a nation of mutts with the blood of countless ethnic groups coursing through our veins. Let’s pick our presidents on merits. If you want a pure breed, buy a dog.