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The Pecking Order
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 23, 2001

Question: As you know, every member of the Cabinet is in the line of presidential succession, although the adoption of the 25th Amendment makes it unlikely that any Cabinet member will ascend to the presidency via that route. Still, it is theoretically possible. And although there have been African-Americans in the Cabinet before, none has been as high up in the pecking order as Secretary of State Colin Powell. An African-American is now closer, I believe, to the presidency than at any time in our history. If President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Senate President Pro Tem Strom Thurmond were to die, Powell would become president. Why do you think this fact has received such scant notice? – Eric Newman, Englewood, N.J.

Answer: It is true that Powell is closer in the line of presidential successors than any other black person in history. But only nine presidents (William H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon) left office before their terms were up, either by death or resignation. Similarly, only nine vice presidents (George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, John C. Calhoun, William King, Henry Wilson, Thomas Hendricks, Garret Hobart, James Sherman and Spiro Agnew) left office early. Each time a president left office prematurely he was succeeded by a vice president who remained in office through the end of the term.

But even if both the presidency and vice presidency were vacant, next in line is the speaker of the House. By my count, only nine sitting Speakers (Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, Michael Kerr, Nicholas Longworth, Henry Rainey, Joseph Byrns, William Bankhead, Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright) either died or resigned. And even if there was not a president, vice president or House speaker, Powell would still be behind the Senate president pro tem, of which only six (William Frye, James Paul Clarke, Key Pittman, Pat Harrison, Richard Russell and Allen Ellender) failed to finish their terms. So for Powell to become president via the Presidential Succession Act, lightning is going to have to strike Bush, Cheney, Hastert and Thurmond. That would be my guess as to why Powell’s place in the pecking order has received little fanfare.

Question: Constitutionally, the speaker of the House does not need to be a member of Congress. Has any non-member held the position?
– Mike Kwan, Elmhurst, N.Y.
Though no longer in the House, Bob Michel got one vote for speaker in '97. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: No, but there have been votes cast for non-members. During the 1997 vote for speaker, in which Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was narrowly reelected, one Republican member voted for Bob Michel, the former House minority leader who left Congress in 1995. In that same election, another Republican voted for Robert Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who had just retired from the House.

Question: I recently saw a daybook reference to an event in the Capitol which read, "Lott Dugout -- Sen. Trent Lott holds a dugout." I have never heard this term. What does it mean?
–Carlos Melville, Boston, Mass.

Answer: A "dugout" is the informal briefing (pad and pen only) for reporters held by the Republican and/or Democratic leaders of the Senate on the Senate floor -- usually just before the Senate goes into session. Nearly a half-century ago, when the Washington Senators were a baseball team, there was a radio pre-game interview program called "The Dugout," or something to that effect. It is my understanding that is where the current use of the term "dugout" is derived.

Question: Where did the term "Beltway" come from?
–D.G. Ludvigson, Maple Valley, Wash.

Answer: Literally, it means a highway that encircles a city or an urban area. Politically, it refers to the highway (Route 495 to the west and Route 95 to the east) that encircles Washington, D.C. When you see references to "Beltway mentality" or "inside the Beltway," it’s about a state of mind that ostensibly is infested in the Washington pundits and know-it-alls, in which their views and attitudes are more self-focused and considered more self-important than people in the rest of the country.

Question: How many presidents had fathers that were still alive during their presidency? Obviously, there is President Bush’s father, and former president Kennedy's father was alive too -- but how many others?
–John La Penta, Charlotte, N.C.
Bush is one of only seven men to see his son become president. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: Five others: John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. The fathers of Harding and Kennedy survived their sons.

Question: Former President Clinton and President Bush are from neighboring states (Clinton from Arkansas, Bush from Texas). With the obvious exception of former president Bush, also from Texas, who was succeeded by Clinton, how many times have men from neighboring states succeeded one another?
–Dave Kelly, Schaumburg, Ill.

Answer: Excluding successive presidents from the SAME state (such as Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe), it happened only one other time. Dwight Eisenhower, born in Texas, was a resident of New York when he was elected in 1952. He was succeeded eight years later by Massachusetts’ John F. Kennedy.

Question: You mentioned in your March 9 column that President Clinton could have given a State of the Union speech this year but chose not to do so. Has an outgoing president ever chosen to give such a speech just before leaving office?
–Bob Brewer, Chicago, Ill.

Answer: The last one to do so was former president Gerald Ford. On Jan. 12, 1977, he delivered his message to a joint session of Congress, in which he said the State of the Union was "good" and that "today we have a more perfect union than when my stewardship began." He said he was "proud of the part I have had in rebuilding confidence in the presidency, confidence in our free system and confidence in our future. Once again, Americans believe in themselves, in their leaders and in the promise that tomorrow holds for their children."

Ronald Reagan did what former presidents Jimmy Carter and Dwight D. Eisenhower did before him; rather than give a final State of the Union address, he gave a nationally-televised "farewell" speech from the White House residence. Eisenhower’s "farewell address" on Jan. 17, 1961 was among the more famous of the "farewell" speeches. He warned Americans to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin

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