I used to work with a guy who had inherited an antique dresser from his grandmother. It was one of those ornate dressers like they made at the turn of the last century—the kind with curlicue trim and a long mirror and an assortment of big drawers and small drawers and even drawers within drawers to hide coins and jewelry from would-be thieves and prying relatives.
He didn’t notice the interior drawer at first. It was made not to be noticed, after all. But when he did discover it, he found—instead of gold or diamonds—a letter from his grandmother’s doctor. Typed on the doctor’s stationery, it certified that in his medical opinion, the grandmother was sane.
I thought of that story when I read Mike Pence’s January 12th letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, refusing to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office.
I’m hardly a Pence fan. There’s something cloistered about the way he reportedly avoids business dinners with women and calls his wife Karen “Mother,” though he’s apparently not alone in this practice.
But (wince) he was right when he wrote that using the 25th Amendment as a means of “punishment or usurpation” would set a “terrible precedent.”
Ratified after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the 25th Amendment was designed to be used in the event of “death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation,” according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute. If, for example, JFK had not died from gunshot wounds, but had instead lingered in a coma, it would have been more difficult for Vice President Lyndon Johnson to step in. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, his wife Edith Bolling Galt Wilson ran the executive branch.
Pence’s letter quotes Pelosi’s own statements that a president’s fitness for office should be determined by “science and facts”—on a medical decision and not because of a “comment or behavior that we don’t like.”
“Madam Speaker, you were right,” he tells her.
As heinous as Trump’s actions have been, both before and after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the government can’t just call someone insane or “incapacitated” even if they refuse to accept what is provably true (that Joe Biden won the election) or their words incite an attempted coup. There may be a fine line between guilt and insanity, but you can’t pick one and take action. Law and medicine are different discourses, calling for different processes.
That’s why my friend’s grandmother’s doctor’s hidden letter is relevant. Too many women have been victims of assumptions about their sanity across the centuries, many supposedly “diagnosed” with “female hysteria”—once an umbrella term for pretty much any behavior that their fathers or husbands didn’t like. “Hysteria” is rooted in the Greek word for womb, which was supposedly the cause of women’s “insanity.” (Male) doctors in the 18th century didn’t agree on what caused it. Some bought into the “roaming uteri” theory—the idea that women were hysterical because their wombs wouldn’t stay put. Others blamed the “female seed.” Many women were committed to institutions, as 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly discovered during her investigation of the Blackwell’s Island asylum.
Knowing this makes one of Trump’s erstwhile epithets against Hillary Clinton--“Lock Her Up”—soul-searingly nefarious to women who understand its historical implications.
It’s amazing how things come full circle.
I don’t know what my friend’s grandmother’s issues with her husband were, but she clearly lived in such fear that she confided in her doctor. The letter was her insurance policy against being locked away against her will.
Fortunately, ethical decisions have sometimes prevailed, as they did for my friend’s grandmother. And as the thoughtful psychiatrist who examined suffragist Alice Paul—sent to a sanitorium after she went on a hunger strike following her arrest for picketing the White House—said, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”
Trump is hardly courageous, but barring a coma or a stroke or something equally obvious, it wasn’t up to Pence to declare him “incapacitated."
Before I thought about all this—back when the idea of invoking the 25th first came up—I was all for it. But no one in government should go around making medical decisions—logic that Pence clearly saw in this case, and that he might consider extending to the abortion issue. But that's another post.