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3.10.2004

The Presidency, the Problems and Arnold Schwarzenegger

It's not Arnold Schwarzenegger who should worry us. Nor is it the young immigrant who arrives in the United States at 10 years old, works hard, succeeds through his or her own merit and deserves a chance at the nation's highest office.

For how can anyone be troubled by the meritorious who are born outside the US borders and denied under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution the right to be President. Only Sen. Orrin Hatch's "Equal Opportunity to Govern" Amendment that allows the foreign-born who have been citizens for 20 years to become President can set this right.

What could be wrong with this?

There are several problems. To begin with, the amendment doesn't just open the Presidency up to Austrian body builders. It also becomes available to former foreign prime ministers, senators, ambassadors, generals, dictators, princes, earls, dukes who can by active or surreptitious campaigns try and attain the Presidency and, in turn, bring an unwelcome dimension to our politics and policies.

Even if notable statesmen like a 40-year-old Winston Churchill or a
45-year-old, former Mexican President like the beloved Lazaro Cardenas were to emigrate and become US citizens, the benefits they would bring to the Presidency might not outweigh the harms or weaknesses. By the time someone reaches the age of 40, political learning and habits regarding government, freedom of speech, press, religion, civil and criminal justice, may have become an unchangeable part of a political character.

It's not easy to assume that ideas and habits formed in London, Moscow, Ankara, Beijing or Sao Paulo would be easily unlearned by a 40-year-old immigrant even after 20 or 30 years in the US. Consider what different political habits will have been learned by emigres such as a former Russian minister who confronts old communist bureaucracies and new oligarchs; a former Columbian senator whose early career was battling Maoist guerrillas; or an Indian Governor who used what we might consider excessive force against a mob of Hindu nationalists.

And to assume revolutionary exiles like the Mexican Emperor Agustin de Iturbide who lost his title at age 40 could not alter national politics or aim for the presidency is to forget our own history and the political rise of figures such as former Vice-President Aaron Burr or Presidential aspirant Senator Huey Long.

Then there is the problem of foreign policy. If a famous Canadian-born or Mexican-born statesperson--or even an actor, lucid in thought and commanding in speech--ran for President during deteriorating relations over debt repayment, immigration policy or border disputes, their nationality could add venom to a traditional divisiveness even more than that during the Mexican War, pre-WWII or Vietnam.

This is not an impractical hypothetical. In the same year Napoleon lost his Waterloo, some New England leaders were considering secession over our war with England. It is prudent to consider whether these anti-French Federalists could have been driven closer to secession if the famous Frenchman and hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, had been President instead of the Virginia-born James Madison.

Or take a hypothetical for today. Consider what divisiveness might follow the election of a Taiwanese-born or Chinese-born President were a crisis to arise in the Taiwan Straits. Add to this the danger or suspicion that foreign nations could become involved in an election, directly or covertly, financially or with military threats, in supporting or trying to defeat their native-born son or daughter.

This is not to discard the contribution of foreign-born politicians and
statespersons: the brilliant Swiss-born Albert Gallatin in the 19th century, as well as others like Henry Kissinger and Madelaine Albright whose contributions have been alluded to by Gov. Schwarzenneger.

But a foreign-born Congressman or Senator, like the German-born Carl Schurz has dozens of other colleagues who can vote down whatever foreign bias he or she may have. Likewise, though close to the President, a Secretary of State or National Security Advisor like Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, advises and acts but does not hold the executive power and make the final decisions. The nature of the Presidency, especially in the 20th century is far more singular and powerful.

Amendment supporters may claim that rejecting the Hatch Amendment is xenophobic. The Constitutional drafters should not be cornered into this bigotry. They would as easily have favored a French Constitutional ban on Thomas Jefferson becoming the French President as they favored the American ban on the Anglo-Saxon Brit William Pitt becoming ours. Reason and historical lessons governed their decision, not irrationality.

The fundamental design of the Constitution can appear arbitrary. The separation of branches denies men of merit or genius from fully contributing their talents. If the Senate Majority leader has the military genius of a Julius Caesar or Napoleon, he or she cannot command the armed forces. If a Supreme Court Justice is a brilliant Nobel-prize winning economist, he cannot in the middle of a recession draw up legislation on the House floor.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted these dangers to the presidency in his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution. He wrote that "the general propriety of the exclusion of foreigners, in common cases, will scarcely be doubted by any sound statesman. It cuts off all chances for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office; and interposes a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments in executive elections."

Is all this ridiculous to consider? Perhaps. But seeking to create angels at home can convulse society as much as searching for dragons abroad.

Democratic sensibilities can change quickly. What founding father--or even statesman in 1950--would have thought that a film actor could campaign on a recall for two months and suddenly become governor of the most populous state in the US?

-S. Schudy





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