Ethical Quote Of The Week: Washington Post Columnist Ruth Marcus

Frank Costanza

“So when you hear arguments over whether Cruz can be president, don’t worry about the senator from Texas. Think instead about the little girl adopted from China, learning about civics in her second-grade classroom and being told that she can never become president of the only country she has known.”

—-Washington Post editor and op-ed pundit Ruth Marcus, concluding a column titled, “Abolish the ‘natural born citizen’ test”

I love this quote, in no small part because it provides a neat exception to the general rule that an advocate using “Think of the Children!” as an argument is usually as sign that the advocate doesn’t want us to think at all. In this case, however, it is appropriate to think of that Chinese orphan, or my Russia-born son (rather than, say, George Costanza’s Italian born father on “Seinfeld,” who ignored politics on the grounds that he felt unfairly prohibited from running for President, shouting, “They don’t want me, I don’t want them!”), as well as figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The requirement for Presidents to be not just citizens in good standing, but “natural born” citizens, is the epitome of a Constitutional provision that once made sense but now does not. Marcus:

“It arose in a 1787 letter from John Jay, later to be the first chief justice, to George Washington, in which Jay questioned “whether it would not be wise & seasonable to provide a … strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Command in chief of the American army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born citizen.”

The point of the presidential eligibility rule, Justice Joseph Story explained in 1833, was that “it cuts off all chances for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office; and interposes a barrier against those corrupt interferences of foreign governments in executive elections.”

That risk, Sarah Helene Duggin and Mary Beth Collins explained in a 2005 article in the Boston University Law Review, is no longer present. “Any historically legitimate justification for the proviso faded away long ago,” they wrote. “Fortunately, our independence from England is now secure, and the United States has grown from a fledgling former colony into the most powerful nation in the world.”

Unlike other controversial Constitutional rules, however, this one doesn’t have a rational justification any more. It’s sole use as a “gotcha!” which is essentially how Donald Trump is using it against Ted Cruz. The requirement was well on its way to dead letter status in the 19th Century, when nobody seemed to care that Chester A. Arthur may have been born in Canada to Canadian citizens, and therefore not “natural born, sufficiently to block his nomination as James Garfield’s Vice-President in 1880. When Garfield was assassinated, we had our first non-natural born President since the Constitution was ratified, at least according to some “birthers.” He did a pretty good job, too.

Laws are laws, however, and the Constitution, contrary to the Obama Administration’s operating philosophy, should be followed, not gamed, manipulated and ignored. We need a final settlement of what “natural born” means in Cruz’s case, so raising the issue is as responsible as it is obnoxious. What do we do about that little Chinese girl, though, and Frank Costanza?

Options are limited. There are dead letters in the Constitution (like the Commerce Clause) but there aren’t supposed to be. Nobody in their right mind wants a Constitutional convention. Constitutional amendments have been impossible for decades, but maybe this one is obvious enough and uncontroversial enough to make it. I would worry that amending the founding document successfully might start renewed enthusiasm for more mischievous changes, but it’s not a big worry. The last amendment provided for a President to fill a Vice-Presidential vacancy with an appointment validated by Congress; eliminating a now-senseless bias against naturalized citizens seems no more controversial, assuming naturalized illegal immigrants  aren’t …oh, oh.

Maybe Frank is out of luck.

13 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Week: Washington Post Columnist Ruth Marcus

  1. I thought of The Terminator when reading your earlier post on Cruz. Ahhnold might have been a very good and viable Republican presidential candidate right now. I think an amendment to the Constitution removing the “natural born citizen” requirement is in order.

  2. This may be a bit out in “left” field but here are my questions…

    If this Constitutional rule doesn’t have a “rational justification any more” who’s to say that others can’t make the exact same claim about other Constitutional “rules”; gun control advocates have been claiming for years that there is no rational justification to keep the Second Amendment, what about freedom of speech, Presidential two term “rule”; how about Due Process, etc, etc…

    “I would worry that amending the founding document successfully might start renewed enthusiasm for more mischievous changes, but it’s not a big worry.”

    I think that is a valid bigworry, it could very well set a precedence that could be used and will by those opposed to specific things in the Constitution.

    Just because “maybe this one is obvious enough and uncontroversial enough to make it” doesn’t mean we should spend the time to do it. I have no problem with Congress openly discussing these kinds of things but I’m not fully convinced we should change this plus aren’t there some more pressing issues for the United States to be dealing with?

    I have absolutely no problem with the Supreme Court interrupting what “natural born citizen” means, in fact I think they should do so, but doesn’t that require someone to bring a case to the court? Who will do that?

    • P.S. This actually would have affected me if I were to have chosen a goal to be President. I was born of United States citizens in London, England while my Father was abroad for the Air Force. I actually have two birth certificates one from the United States and one from the United Kingdom, I was given the choice on my 18th birthday which country I would be a citizen of – I chose United States.

  3. I had naturalized Illegal Immigrant citizens in my mind the whole time I read this entry. Or maybe naturalized Syrian refugees who may or may not have been vetted….

    So, I think that Frank shouldn’t hold his breath, either.

    When it comes to children adopted from other countries and raised in the U.S., I agree that it seems to be a silly provision. But it does appear that the founders felt that adults coming from other countries and becoming naturalized may not have the same devotion to U.S. values and laws that presumably a natural-born citizen would. Of course, we know that many people come here from other countries, assimiliate and work hard to contribute to our unique American culture and traditions. However, a naturalized citizen who refuses to assimiliate could do a great deal of damage while in office – though I acknowledge that the chances of such a person being elected are slim.

    For now.

  4. Jack,
    I agree the stipulation is perhaps outdated, but I would tend to agree with Zoltar, that there are far more pressing concerns than to go making this an issue. After all, this is the only prohibition of it’s kind (save for age restrictions) and only counts against one public office (for which only about 0.000000001% of the population will ever run). As far as discriminatory policies goes, this doesn’t even come close to topping the chart.

    What’s more, although someone born in China is capable of loving this country as much or more than any “natural-born” citizen, the message it sends is symbolic. The President represents the embodiment of the American ideal, and what could be more American than someone born and raised right here?

    My biggest problem with the clause comes from the fact that it’s one-sided. It demands that a President be born in the United States but (unlike my above statement) doesn’t similarly specify they live here for any reasonable period. Arguably, one could be born in the United States, live their entire life abroad, and move back right before they chose to run. That, to me, would be far more disqualifying.


    • Oh, I agree—it hasn’t been a concern at all for centuries, and a simple judicial clarification will do the trick for Cruz. Still, we’re increasingly close to a time when we will be losing significant talent in the area of national governance, where we need it badly. A lot of our Presidents set out to be President at an early age, which one tends not to do when the way is already blocked by law.

      We may NEED that little Chinese girl. Whether keeping her in the pool, when the current pool has deteriorated as badly as it has, may be worth making a priority after all.

  5. Correction: I forgot about the fourteen-year residency requirement at the end. Never mind. Still, depending on one’s age, 14 years may not have been most, or even 1/4 of their life.

  6. Chester Arthur was not born in Canada but in Fairfield, Vermont. His mother was a U.S. Citizen and his father having immigrated from Ireland to Canada where he was teaching at the time. He in my opinion, is an underrated president who passed important civil service reform legislation and revived the U.S. Navy. Mark Twain liked h too!

  7. ” He did a pretty good job, too.”

    If true, Consequentialism.

    I totally understand the founder’s concerns to have a strict definition of who will be the commander in chief, geared towards ensuring as close to no possibility of conflicts of interest (or loyalty) as possible towards other nations.

    If a ruling is necessary, then let it angle towards excluding possible issues, not the other direction.

    Cold? Maybe. But then again, the Presidency doesn’t exist so we can all feel good about multiculturalism.

      • But our present President is such an anti-colonialist, internationalist, virtually anti-American, apologist that the current restriction didn’t protect the country from his weird split (at best) loyalties. Bernie Sanders was born in Brooklyn but honey mooned in the Soviet Union. Maybe there should be a prohibition against allowing University of Chicago graduate students from being President?

  8. It seems like something that should be easily rectified, but I doubt it would pass in the South.

    At least, unless the Republicans had someone popular like Schwarzenegger running (though obviously he’s toast, now).

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