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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Who becomes president after the president is incapacitated?

By Carly Dykes The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Who becomes president if the president cannot serve?

In 1901, more than 42 exhibits showcasing technological advances of the 19th century were spread over 350 acres of Buffalo, New York, that were brilliantly lit at night with electric light.

While the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition attracted millions of visitors, its place in history is infamous as the assassination site of President William McKinley.

Tuesday marks the 121st anniversary of the day McKinley was shot.

McKinley was applauded across the nation for leading America during the Spanish American War, said Audra Dull, a librarian at McKinley Memorial Library in Niles, Ohio.

At the time, he was the third president to be assassinated, following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A. Garfield in 1881.

Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist and steelworker, believed he was doing the nation a favor by assassinating McKinley publicly, Dull said. Anarchists aim to abolish government institutions.

Czolgosz approached McKinley during a reception that was meant to be the president’s final appearance at the expo. McKinley’s staff, already worried about a potential assassination attempt during the expo, had attempted to cancel the reception on two occasions. McKinley, however, insisted that the reception stay on schedule.

Czolgosz waited in line with hundreds of excited citizens for an opportunity to meet the president. He had a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver hidden in his pocket. When McKinley extended his hand toward Czolgosz for a handshake, he was shot twice by the assassin, Dull said.

McKinley did not immediately succumb to his injuries, and his recovery was expected after emergency surgery. He died Sept. 14, eight days after the attack, of gangrene caused by the wounds.

Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in on the same day McKinley died.

“One of the major reasons for having a vice president was to have somebody who could step in, in case the president was unable to complete his or her term,” said David May, a political science professor at Eastern Washington University.

Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University, said when the Founding Fathers created the office of vice president, duties for the position were light beyond being available to serve in case the president was unable to do so. As such, they also opted to make the vice president the president of the Senate.

After the death of a president, a vice president can be sworn into the office of president anywhere, as long as a judge is present and the following oath is read: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Garvin said President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on an airplane after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“It doesn’t matter where it happens, just as long as there’s a judge there to minister the oath. That’s required by the Constitution,” Garvin said.

Roosevelt was sworn into office by John R. Hazel, a U.S. District judge in New York.

The Constitution makes it clear that the vice president assumes the duties of the president upon the president’s death, but it didn’t explicitly state that the vice president would become the president. That was cleared up with the 25th Amendment approved in 1965 following Kennedy’s assassination.

The 25th Amendment also protects the incoming president’s rights to fill the vacancy of a vice president. The amendment allowed President Richard Nixon to appoint Gerald Ford as vice president in 1973 and for Ford to appoint Nelson Rockefeller vice president in 1974.

“The new president, who was formerly vice president, gets to name somebody to be vice president. That person then has to be confirmed by the both houses of Congress,” Garvin said. “Before the 25th Amendment, which came in the ’60s, there were a number of times where a vice president died and the office was remained vacant.”

Another law approved by Congress allows for others to succeed as president if the vice president is unable to step in. In that case, the next in line is the speaker of the House followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, Garvin said.