President for Six Minutes


History surrenders this secret grudgingly: several men technically were president, but aren’t considered Presidents of the United States. You have to look hard to find them, but they’re there.

For example, George H. W. Bush was Acting President for almost eight hours in 1985 while Ronald Reagan had colon surgery. Dick Cheney did likewise in 2002 and 2007 when boss George W. Bush was anesthetized for colonoscopies.

Then there was David Rice Atchison who may, or may not, have been president for one day in 1849. (Read here and decide for yourself.)

But here’s the most overlooked incident of all.

Harry Truman never wanted to be president. He got the job anyway when Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945. FDR was a hard act to follow and Truman was largely unknown outside his home state: would he be up to it?

He jumped in with determination and made one major decision after another (using the atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift). Harry could clearly do the job.

Yet when election time rolled around in 1948 the odds were overwhelmingly against him. Democrats had held the White House for 16 years and many folks wanted a change. Republican Tom Dewey was a tough challenger. Virtually nobody gave Truman any chance of winning. Public opinion polls, national columnists and political insiders unanimously agreed Truman would be buried in a landslide.

Harry shrugged them off, hopped aboard his campaign train and logged 20,000 miles. (By comparison, that’s almost one trip around the Earth.) He stopped to speak in any town, big or small, where people wanted to hear him.

And it worked. On Election Day he pulled off the greatest upset in history. The Man from Missouri had done what literally everyone said was impossible. Naturally, Truman was more than ready to savor his triumph on Inauguration Day.

A huge crowd turned out on January 20, 1949. Another 10 million watched in 14 cities on the brand-new invention of television. More people saw Harry Truman being sworn in than had witnessed all previous inaugurations combined.

But an error happened. And as always, it was Congress’ fault.

The U. S. Constitution specifies the president’s term begins at noon on January 20. Exactly four years later it expires. At 12:01 p.m. he’s no longer president. Which is why the inauguration ceremony is timed to the minute so the oath is given precisely at noon.

That didn’t happen in 1949. Members of Congress were 10 minutes late arriving to the Capitol’s East Front. They took another 10 minutes finding their seats. The ceremony began 20 minutes behind schedule.

Incoming Vice President Alben Barkley took his oath first, as tradition dictated. He wasn’t sworn in until 12:23. Since Truman’s term had officially expired 23 minutes earlier, the office of president was vacant during that time. As the constitutionally designated presidential successor Barkley was essentially Acting President of the United States.

A long prayer and much hot air followed. Harry finally put his hand on the Bible at 12:29. Technically, Truman was a private citizen during that six-minute gap.

In a practical sense, it didn’t matter much back in 1949. The Age of Terrorism was decades in the future and while the Atomic Age had begun, there were no missiles or long-range bombers yet for the Soviets to take advantage of the situation.

All this is a technicality, of course. But lawyers wouldn’t exist without technicalities, and presidential legal scholars (yes, there are such critters) agree that for those six minutes on January 20, 1949 Alben Barkley technically had the duties, if not the office, of the presidency.

You can stump your friends with this bit of arcane trivia at your next neighborhood barbecue. And if you ever happen to be elected president yourself one day, please make sure Congress shows up on time.

Did you find this enjoyable? Please continue to join me each week, and I invite you to read Tell it Like Tupper and share your review!

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