Reagan-Gorbachev shaking hands 1987
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When a quarterback is not in command of his usual abilities because of a concussion or illness, he may be replaced for a game or two or even lose his position. This is done independently of the man's level of fame and recognition. What counts is the ability to perform in the upcoming game or for the rest of the season. Likewise, when a corporate chieftain begins to show signs of slippage in his mental skills, he is readily replaced by his Board of Directors.
This mechanism is unavailable with majority or sole owners of corporations, leading to spectacles such as we have seen with Sumner Redstone and earlier with Howard Hughes. The problem is that people tend not to be good judges of their own declining abilities as they age. We all enjoy the benefit of the healthy illusion that allows us to focus on our abilities and look past our disabilities. There is a second problem, which is that access to power changes people, and typically not in a good way. It's yet another 'healthy illusion' that one's power status is confirmation of one's inherent gifts. So power seeks its own aggrandizement.
A similar set of problems is presented when we are dealing with elected or appointed government officials. We have the famous case of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was unaware of his manifest state of dysfunction after suffering a stroke. He insisted on continuing to be involved on court business, much to the consternation of his colleagues. Ronald Reagan's staff was concerned about leaving him alone with Mikhail Gorbachov at their meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. Similarly, Donald Trump's staff was concerned about leaving him alone with Vladimir Putin for ninety minutes. In retrospect, it appears that Ronald Reagan was suffering from the initial stages of Alzheimer's while he was still President.
When we elect a President or a Supreme Court Justice is appointed, their basic neurophysiological functionality is assumed. The selection is made on higher criteria. When basic neurophysiological functionality comes into question later, the original selection should no longer have any bearing. When the President is no longer competent to execute the duties of his office he should be removed from his post. Perhaps he retains the title of the office to which he was elected, but he should not serve for the duration of his incapacity.
Presently we appear to be in a situation in which the unsuitability of the President to serve is fully evident to his own staff, and yet the staff is engaged in a project to preserve the Presidency of Donald Trump--almost irrespective of what that might entail in terms of the fortunes of the country. One is reminded of the movie El Cid, where the deceased general was propped up on his horse to lead his soldiers in battle--in the hope that his troops would be inspired and not notice the deficiency.
In principle, we have the Cabinet to serve as a kind of "Board of Directors" to remove the chief executive under the 25th Amendment. Unfortunately, the cabinet appears similarly engaged in preserving the Presidency of Donald Trump at all costs. It is as if we had crowned a king in the Middle Ages rather than elected a President in the 21st century. The President is our Chief Executive, and his service should be entirely conditional on ability to serve rather than the outcome of an election that occurred under very different circumstances. The election was qualifying, provided that other conditions also prevail.
There was a time when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was hospitalized for a spell, and during that stint he appeared at the front desk in his gown, asking to be discharged. That incident was an anomaly. Similarly, Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once suffered a minor head injury, resulting in some bizarre behavior in subsequent weeks. But that condition subsided. Soon thereafter, he served competently on the Challenger Commission. We all live with the finite risk of such dysfunctions.
Most likely the decision to divest the President of his executive powers looms as large as it does because it is deemed to be permanent. In consequence, one looks for ever more unambiguous proof of his mental instability, and the bar is being set lower and lower as dysfunctional behavior is gradually 'normalized.' If President Obama had acted anything like Trump on a particular day, we would have had no doubt that he'd gone nuts. With Trump we're not so sure.