“If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.”
— Robert Heinlein, “Time Enough for Love,” 1973
The reason we argue so long and so loud about the meaning of the Constitution of the United States is because its authors — of the original document and many of its amendments — clearly wanted us to.
Why else would they pepper the thing with fuzzy phrases and weasel words like, “a more perfect union,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “from time to time,” “hold their Offices during good Behaviour,” “a Republican Form of Government,” “A well regulated Militia,” “unreasonable searches and seizures,” “a speedy and public trial,” “Excessive bail" if it were not to give their posterity things to incessantly argue about.
They weren’t Founding Fathers. They were high school debate coaches.
There are a few exceptions to that deliberate, if not devilish, devotion to imprecision. Those are the parts of the Constitution that have numbers in them. To take a seat in the House of Representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old. To be in the Senate, you have to be at least 30. To be president, no less than 35. And have lived in the United States for at least 14 years.
Another rare but important bit of precision in the Constitution is the part that specifies when the term of a president comes to an end. The 20th Amendment clearly says, “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January ... of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”
(That 1933 amendment was to change the date for the beginning of presidential terms, which had been March 4, left over from an enactment of the pre-Constitution Congress of the Confederation. The idea was that the distance between the November election and the March inauguration was tooooooo long.)
So, presuming that a few thousand voters in a few rust belt states don’t muck it up for everyone again, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t actually hack into any swing state election computers, the term of the Current Occupant will end precisely at noon, Jan. 20, 2021. There does not need to be any resolution or act of Congress. No court fight or executive order. There is no glass slipper. At that hour on that date, this benighted presidency turns into a pumpkin and our long national nightmare will be over.
The authority ends. The guy with the nuclear football relocates. Agencies take their orders from the new guy, or gal. Long live the Deep State.
It’s automatic. Seamless. Like the renewal of your Salt Lake Tribune subscription.
Thus, among all the other things we have to worry about, the threat of the sitting president continuing to sit, the threat that he might not give up the office in the first month of 2021 — or, worst comes to worst — 2025, doesn’t really exist. He doesn’t have to give up power. Power gives up him.
But, just in case there is any real threat of the incumbent barricading himself in the Oval Office, of him calling upon NRA members and biker gangs to become his pretorian guard around the White House, we need a way to avoid violence and keep the wheels of government moving.
It would be a simple matter for President Warren/Harris/Biden/Sanders/ to take up residence across the street in Blair House, the official White House guest quarters. Harry Truman lived there while the White House was being renovated. Or, if that is not secure enough or doesn’t have all the necessary electronic fixtures, the duly elected president could share the official vice presidential abode over at the Naval Observatory with Veep Buttigieg/Castro/Hickenlooper/Gillibrand.
Washington is chock-a-block with formal offices for the new president to work out of. There’d be a push to have it be in the Pentagon, for security. But I’d argue for something less martial. Like the Treasury. Or the Department of Agriculture.
The new administration could, with a little help from all those Democratic-leaning wizards in Hollywood, use sets and tricks and fake footage to make supporters of the current Dear Leader think he was still in charge. Speeches. Rallies. Staged scenes of millions of brown people being rounded up and sent back across the border. (Just use the part of “The Ten Commandments” that shows the Hebrews marching out of Egypt.)
Just like the sequence toward the end of “Fahrenheit 451” — both Ray Bradbury’s book and Francois Truffaut’s film — where the authorities declare renegade fireman Montag a killer, then broadcast images of police robots shooting down some random dude in the street and telling everyone it was the criminal, case closed, as you were, nothing to see here.
Except you wouldn’t have to actually shoot anybody.
And Fox News would finally be good for something.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has never been very good with figures. So he sticks to writing opinion.