Adopted on February 10, 1967, the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for the Vice President to become Acting President in certain situations. Highly likely to be applied at some point in a drama in which the President is a major character, mostly for reasons of the Rule of Drama—in reality, the Amendment has only been applied seven times. Of these, three had to do with the debacle that was the Nixon presidency and four had to do with the health of the Presidential pooper:
- When Gerald Ford was appointed Vice President by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned (1973).
- When Ford succeeded to the Presidency after Nixon resigned (the Amendment superseded the ambiguous provision in Article II of the Constitution) (1974).
- When Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller Vice President (1974).
- When Ronald Reagan, having discovered a potentially cancerous lesion during a routine colonoscopy, made George H. W. Bush Acting President while Reagan was under anesthesia (1985).
- Twice, when George W. Bush was undergoing a colonoscopy and temporarily made Dick Cheney Acting President during the procedure (2002 and 2007).
- When Joe Biden was undergoing a colonoscopy and temporarily made Kamala Harris Acting President during the procedure (2021).
Incidentally, all but one of these instances involved Republicans.note
Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro temporenote of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
While every instance so far of a Vice President becoming Acting President has been due to the President being aware in advance that he'll be temporarily incapacitated (for medical procedures) and making such a declaration, the amendment also provides a method for this to be done when the President is incapacitated in an unplanned event that renders him still alive, but incapable of making a declaration of incapacity (such as falling into a coma, becoming seriously ill or going insane). Since these are far more dramatic scenarios for an Acting President to be installed and much more likely to have the office held for more than just a few hours (and in the latter scenario also allow for even more drama if the President insists he's not actually incapacitated, requiring Congress to decide whether he's correct), they're much more likely to show up in fiction.
Wikipedia has a list of the real order of succession and who is currently on it, if you are interested.
Compare Unexpected Successor. See Succession Crisis for what might happen if we didn't have said amendment (or even if the situation is murky enough for there to be questions about who exactly is in charge).
- In the The Boys, the Big Bad megacorporation has managed to put a guy who's in their pocket in the position of Vice President. Their Evil Plan is to then secretly assassinate the current President, so that their man can take his place. The plan fails, but the President later dies in a freak accident, so they get their way anyway.
- Judge Dredd. This is how Bob Booth became President in the first place, before rigging the next election so he can stay in power.
- Section 4 is almost invoked in Air Force One. It's such a significant plot point that an AP Government teacher referred to it as "the Air Force One amendment". Also, right after the hi-jacking of Air Force One the White House players do not know whether the President is dead or alive (either held by the hijackers or if he escaped by the pod). Finding an empty pod on the ground makes it no easier. They cannot assume anything, nor invoke any provisions of the 25th amendment, until there is confirmation either way. This makes the Secretary of Defense, as the statutory deputy to the President, temporarily at the apex of the chain of command of the military forces but not as Acting President.
- In the film Dave, the 25th is sidestepped by putting an impersonator in the Presidential seat, after the real President suffers a crippling stroke. According to Bob Alexander, the Chief of Staff, it's because the Vice President is mentally ill and can't be allowed to take the seat, but really it's because Alexander wants the VP fired and himself made VP so he can ascend to the Presidency next. The actual VP is perfectly sane and becomes President after Dave feigns a stroke and the real President dies.
- In Eagle Eye the Big Bad plans on eliminating everyone in the line of succession, leaving the Secretary of Defense to become President.
- The head of the Secret Service in Lockout uses a previously approved Section 4 declaration to remove the President of the United States from power and force the attack of a prison space station where The President's Daughter is being held hostage.
- In Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, Stone Alexander has unified much of the world under his banner by virtually eliminating rogue states and major terrorist cells. The US, Mexico, and China are the only nations still resisting the integration into Alexander's World Union. By chance, David Alexander, his younger brother, is the current Vice-President of the US. He argues against the President meeting Stone in person to make his refusal. However, the President doesn't see the harm in that. Unfortunately, Stone is, pretty much, The Antichrist, and causes the President's heart to stop with a handshake. David finds out that the President is dead when a Secret Service agent walks up and refers to him as "Mr. President". To Stone's disappointment, David is just as reluctant to join the World Union. The Secretary of State then frames David for the murder of his father (Stone killed him), trying to enforce this trope again.note .
- In White House Down, the Vice-President insists on invoking it when the President is unreachable and potentially being held by the mercenaries that took over the White House. It's invoked again when his plane is shot down, making the Speaker the new President.
- This is how the Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan ends up as first Vice-President, then President a few minutes later when a Joint Session of Congress suffers from a fatal dose of 747: Under Section 2 to become VP, and then Section 1.
- This becomes a significant plotline in the following novel. The former VP challenges Ryan's legitimacy by claiming to have never officially resigned from office (Because he had a friend steal the evidence), and that consequently there was no vacancy for Ryan to fill.
- The preceding novel has Ryan attempt to invoke Section 4 when he, as Deputy Director of the CIA, states that the President is not acting rationally and strongly implies that he's having a nervous breakdown.
- A novel called Fathers Day deals with a President having a nervous breakdown and section 4 kicks in, so the Vice-President takes over. Then the President recovers and returns to resume his office, but the Vice-President argues that he's unfit to command. Then it comes down to who has the popular support, who does Congress want, and ultimately who will the Army obey.
- Vince Flynn's Transfer of Power has this trope as its main theme, hence the title. The President is sealed in a bunker below the White House for his own protection while terrorists control the White House proper, and the VP has to run the show until such time as the President can leave the bunker (Which he can't do until the terrorists are dealt with) or he can communicate with the outside world (Which he can't do because the terrorists have jammed all his communication devices). Being who he is, the VP wants the President dead, and so the army/CIA has to take it into their own hands.
- The crux of Full Disclosure is debating what makes a president, even a disabled one, "unable" under the legal definition of the amendment. It's also pointed out that even if the cabinet votes to enact the amendment then the president may fight it in Congress.
- A variation in the Irving Wallace thriller "The R Document.'' With crime so high, Congress is about to ratify the 35th Amendment which would give the FBI and federal officers far more power. However, Attorney General Christopher Collins lears that the FBI Director Vernon Tynan has been falsifying crime reports to create this Amendment. He plans to have the President assassinated and use it as the excuse to invoke the 35th which contains a secret clause he nicknames the "R Document" (as in "reconstruction"). This basically would completely do away with the Bill of Rights and in essence make Tynan the supreme leader of the country over the President or Congress. More chilling To Chris and his allies is the realization that Tynan isn't doing this for power but rather truly believes the only way to "save" America is to turn the country into a police state.
- The Atlantic analyzes how TV has misapplied the amendment.
- The West Wing:
- Appropriately given the topic of the show, it invoked this amendment a few times, most notably the fourth-season finale, "Twenty Five". For added drama, the Vice-President has to resign just before the President's daughter gets kidnapped, so power falls to the Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around.
- The plot of this episode was outlined almost exactly three seasons earlier, when Bartlet is telling his daughter why she has to be careful when going out. It was sufficiently awesome when you realized it, and he hangs a big lampshade on it in the next episode.
- The amendment is also a major plot point in the season 2 premiere when the President is shot and the staff discover that, because he never officially gave temporary power to the Vice-President, it's unclear who is actually in charge. Danny Concannon further complicates the situation by pursuing a story on it. Section 4 seems to have been intentionally avoided in favor of Rule of Drama as it would have been a relatively simple matter for the VP and a majority of the Cabinet to invoke this while the President was incapacitated.
- Section 4 has been invoked in 24 on no fewer than half a dozen occasions:
- In the second season, episode "4:00 A.M. - 5:00 A.M.", removing President David Palmer from power over his refusal to launch a reprisal against "three Middle Eastern countries" thought responsible for a nuclear attack on the US. When Palmer turns out to have been right all along, the order is rescinded — minutes later, however, an assassination attempt leaves him comatose and the amendment is invoked again.
- In the fourth season, episode "11:00 P.M. - 12:00 A.M.". The Vice-President continued as acting President for the remainder of the season and then became President in his own right for the fifth season. Initially, he proved to be highly ineffectual. But that ended up being because he was The Man Behind the Man. Given that the season ends with him being arrested for orchestrating an assassination, Article 1 would be invoked at some point between the fifth season and the sixth.
- In season 6, where evil Vice-President Noah Daniels tried to usurp President Wayne Palmer in order to go ahead with a nuclear strike on Abu Fayed's country. Daniels' attempt is rebuffed this time. Note that Section 4 is actually invoked three times in this season alone, the other two instances being when Daniels takes control of power due to Palmer's slipping in and out of a coma.
- While never touched on directly in-universe, it's implied that the amendment is invoked shortly after the series finale, as President Allison Taylor is so ashamed at how much she let Charles Logan corrupt her that she decides to draw up her resignation. This would leave Vice-President Mitchell Hayworth in charge.
- Babylon 5:
- At the end of the first season, the Earth Alliance version of this amendment was invoked when President Santiago was killed in a space accident, with Vice-President Clark assuming power and in fact had orchestrated his death.
- Repeated at the end of the fourth season: when Clark killed himself, the Earth Alliance Senate elected Susanna Luchenko to complete their term (Clark's own vice president was presumably passed over due being on the losing side of the civil war). Luchenko would later get elected for another term by popular vote.
- Commander in Chief: The pilot revolves around Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton trying to convince Vice-President Mackenzie Allen that she should resign rather than assume the Presidency after the President has a stroke, then dies. He would be next in line, so it's self-serving, but she refuses anyway. With Mackenzie Allen becoming President of the United States, she had to appoint someone for her former position as Vice-President. Not to mention the brief time Nathan Templeton was Acting President while Mac was hospitalized.
- The Colonial government in Battlestar Galactica has a version of this, which kicks in to appoint Secretary of Education Laura Roslin the President of the human survivors after the 42 government officials above her are killed in a nuclear bombardment.
- In Designated Survivor, a terrorist attack destroys the Capitol Building during the State of the Union, killing the President, Vice-President, Speaker, President pro Tempore (in fact all bar two members of Congress), and everyone else in the Cabinet bar Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Thomas Kirkman, who is off-site as the "designated survivor". There is a slight problem in that Kirkman was in fact effectively fired as head of HUD the morning before the attack, although had yet to leave the post, leading to some legitimacy issues.
- In the episode "Warriors", Kirkman has to undergo emergency surgery after being shot by Catalan. As such, newly installed Vice-President Peter MacLeish is sworn in as Acting President until such time that Kirkman is in recovery.
- In "Kirkman Agonistes", tapes of Kirkman's personal therapy sessions following the death of his wife are released to the public. This leads to concerns about Kirkman's ability to serve and several in Congress are shown to be wary of closing deals with him over this. Lyor is thrown no one in the Cabinet is returning his calls when a secretary tells him they're meeting with recently installed Vice President Darby. Realizing what's happening, Lyor races to the Oval and warns the President just minutes before Darby steps in to tell Kirkman they're invoking the 25th. She adds that she's held off signing the letter as she wants to give Kirkman a chance to prove himself in a hearing and frankly isn't thrilled taking the job. In the following episode, "Capacity", is built around that hearing as Kirkman and his inner circle give testimony to try and prove his worth to hold the office. In the end, the Cabinet is persuaded, and the 25th is not invoked.
- In the Made for HBO remake of Seven Days in May, The Enemy Within, the conspirators plan to use section 4 to declare the President incompetent to serve. This was made as a change from the original and lampshaded by a character stating the American people would never accept a full military coup so they have to dress it up with the VP (who's their puppet) taking over.
- In House of Cards (US), this is applied several times:
- Near the end of Season 1, when Frank Underwood engineers the resignation of the Vice-President by having him run for and win the governorship of Pennsylvania, and Underwood is appointed Vice President
- At the end of Season 2, when Underwood engineers the resignation of the President amidst a series of scandals and becomes President himself.
- In season 4, Frank gets shot by Lucas Goodwin in an assassination attempt, and Vice President Donald Blythe is made Acting President until he recovers.
- At the end of Season 5, Frank resigns once all his corrupt dealings come to light, allowing Claire (who had been elected Vice-President) to take over.
- In season 6, it looks like Claire has fallen into a depression, unable to get out of the Oval and crying in public. The cabinet invokes the 25th with VP Usher ready to take over. As soon as the letter is signed, a perfectly composed Claire saunters in the room and fires the entire Cabinet. Too late, they realize this whole thing was Claire's plan to see who would turn on her and replace them with a loyal (and all-female) Cabinet instead.
- Madam Secretary: The season 2 premiere "The Show Must Go On" deals with the Presidential Succession Act, which expands on the 25th Amendment in the event the President and Vice President are both unavailable. Air Force One goes missing over the Atlantic with President Dalton and the Speaker on board, at the same time as the Vice-President collapses on a golf course, requiring emergency surgery. The President pro Tempore of the Senate is summoned to the White House to be sworn in... when it rapidly becomes established that he's senile, thinking Ronald Reagan is still in office. So, the job falls to the Secretary of State, protagonist Elizabeth McCord, who gets a few hours in the post before Air Force One is found.
- Invoked again in the fourth season where President Dalton starts acting completely out of character over a sonic attack on a US embassy, threatening war with Russia. Even when it emerges the attack was unintentional, he still wants to destroy Russian warning satellites and fires the Secretary of Defense for refusing to carry out the order. The Cabinet, led by Liz, get together and vote to activate Section 4. It emerges Dalton has a benign brain tumour that has caused his personality change and once it is removed, he returns to normal. Dalton even publicly thanks the Cabinet for doing this, putting the country ahead of loyalty just to him.
- At the end of season 3 of Veep, the President resigns following FLOTUS's suicide attempt, ending Selina's campaign a bit earlier and making her Acting President. Her juggling campaigning and presidency becomes the overall arc of Seasons 4 and 5.
- Presumably the UCAS Constitution from Shadowrun has a similar amendment, as VP Kyle Haeffner assumed the presidency in the wake of President Dunkelzahn's assassination. Nadja Daviar, Dunkelzahn's former spokesperson, was picked as the new VP by Haeffner and confirmed as such by Congress.
- Of Thee I Sing, which predates the amendment, uses a similar point from Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, stating that the President's "inability to discharge the powers and duties" of the Presidency results in the Vice-President assuming said duties. In this example, it is used to resolve Wintergreen's unfulfilled obligation to marry Diana by marrying her to Throttlebottom instead (it's implied that Wintergreen gets to remains President, especially since the sequel has him defeated for re-election).
- Hitman: Blood Money referenced this several times, initially with a subplot regarding the death of the previous vice president and the appointment of his replacement, and then again in a mission titled, appropriately enough, Amendment XXV, which revolved around Agent 47 preventing the assassination of the President by the newly-appointed Vice-President by, naturally enough, assassinating both the Vice-President and his hired assassin before the deed could be done.
- Part of Splinter Cell: Conviction is about Sam Fisher dealing with a plot to attack Washington D.C. with a series of EMPs, then using the confusion to kill the current president so the Vice President, who is in league with Megiddo, can take over.
- Surprisingly not invoked in Shattered Union, when a domestic terrorist attack obliterates Washington, D.C., with a nuclear device during the Presidential Inauguration, killing, pretty much, the entire federal government. This results in, first, Texas and then other states seceding and creating their own mini-republics. Of course, even before that, the President was extremely unpopular and has, pretty much, violated the Constitution by forcing the Supreme Court to declare all the other candidates unfit during his re-election. When riots started in the West Coast, he declared martial law.
- In The 3rd Birthday, the 25th Amendment is explicitly referred to in the Timeline files when Air Force One was destroyed by Twisted monsters on September 4, 2013, and the Vice-President took over the Presidency.
- In Kickassia, The Nostalgia Critic declares himself President of the newly established realm of Kickassia, and invites The Nostalgia Chick to serve as his Vice-President. She objects by pointing out that she was "kind of holding out for President," but he replies that this is really all a Vice-President does, so she agrees. She then spends the rest of the video attempting to murder him so she can take his job.
- In Futurama, Zoidberg's uncle Harold Zoid writes a movie script about a President whose son is the Vice-President. The son, played by Calculon, does not want to become the President, but when his father dies, Zoidberg suddenly pops in and congratulates him on becoming President. Calculon delivers a Big "NO!" in response.
- In Real Life, as mentioned at the top of the page, this amendment has only been applied six times since its ratification in 1967. The first three times were to make Gerald Ford the Vice-President (following Agnew's resignation), then the President (following Nixon's), then to make Nelson Rockefeller the Vice-President (since Ford had vacated the spot of VP). The other three applications were all of the "just in case" variety, made by presidents before undergoing routine colonoscopies, most recently involving Joe Biden.
- It was not, however, invoked in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in March 1981. Alexander Haig, Secretary of State, stated that he was "in control" until Vice-President George H. W. Bush got to DC, contrary to legal provision. There is some debate as to whether Haig was actually declaring himself "in control", misunderstanding how the amendment applied, or merely misspoke and was actually inferring that he was simply the senior official present at the time of the press briefing.note Whatever the case, it didn't look good to hear a former military general declare this just after the President had nearly been killed.
- It's worth noting that section 1 of the amendment merely clarifies what was generally understood before. The original Constitution stated, "In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President..." While it's not clear from this text alone whether the Vice-President actually becomes President, or merely that the Vice-President remains Vice-President while exercising the powers and duties normally held by the President, the common interpretation was that the Vice-President became President. The first time the matter actually came up, John Tyler made this interpretation stick (in part by refusing to even acknowledge any communication addressing him as anything other than "President"), despite his rather weak political standing. Section 1 of the 25th Amendment simply codifies this interpretation.
- Interestingly, in the novel The Man, written before the 25th Amendment, a black man is President pro tempore of the Senate and everyone above him dies. In a racist attempt to remove him, some people note that the original Constitution does not say he actually becomes President and try to use that technicality against him.
- Section 4 also defines that "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President" clause. Previously, there was no protocol for declaring the President to be incapacitated. The earlier ambiguity had caused issues as early as the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, when his wife Edith's gatekeeping in the aftermath of a severe stroke raised concerns that she was exerting undue influence on state policy.
- Section 2 was a new bit, Lyndon Johnson not having a VP until Hubert Humphrey was elected on the ticket in 1964.
- Similarly, no President who ascended before the 25th's ratification had a Vice-President during the completion of their term; John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur did not get elected to a full term, so they served their entire presidential terms without a vice president.
- It also allowed for the replacement of a VP that died or resigned, when there was none before; the sitting president simply went without. James Madison had both of his VPs die in office.
- Gerald Ford benefited from the 25th twice, ascending to the Presidency without ever running for either Vice-President or President. Ford, a Congressman from Michigan, was appointed Vice-President under Section 2 when Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew Resigned in Disgrace rather than be indicted for bribery and tax fraud from his time as Governor of Maryland. Then when Nixon was forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal Ford was elevated to the Oval Office under Section 1. He is so far the only American President to serve without ever being part of a winning Presidential ticket.
- It's been noted that since the Watergate scandal was already starting to unfold and thus he had to be aware that that Nixon might be impeached, Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-OK) had the power to essentially force himself into the (acting) presidency by refusing to allow a House vote on Ford's appointment as Vice President.note Albert refused to engage in such a partisan power play, though he later said that Ford was the only nominee that the House would have accepted from Nixon (on account of Ford having no connection whatsoever to Nixon's scandals and having a reputation for honesty).
- Donald Trump notably did not follow the convention of temporarily making his Vice President (Mike Pence) Acting President when getting a colonoscopy in 2019. Critics of Trump suggested that he was paranoid that Pence might somehow try to prevent him from taking power back afterward. Trump claimed to have not gone under anesthesia during the procedure, which his critics say is implausible.
- Not a United States example, but the Amendment serves as inspiration for the Argentinian Law 20.972 (which works in almost the same way), which forced the 2001 political crisis, during which there were five presidents in the span of two weeks. After Fernando de la Rúa resigned on December 20, he was succeeded by Ramón Puerta, the... Provisional President of the Senate, since De la Rúa didn't have a vice-president (Carlos Álvares resigned some time earlier). The Congress then appointed Adolfo Rodríguez Saa two days later... who then resigned seven days later. This was followed by Puerta himself resigning as Provisional President of the Senate to not become acting president again, so the job went to the next in the line of succession, President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Camaño, while Congress had to appoint someone again, this time Eduardo Duhalde on January 2, who did finish the remainder of De la Rúa's term. As a sort of book-end, Duhalde was De la Rúa's rival in the presidential election that saw De la Rúa become president.note