In 1796, President George Washington voluntarily set the precedent for a two-term limit on the Presidency, stepping aside and giving up power on his own. Historians tell us that his decision was informed both by his desire “to pass through the vale of life in retirement” and to honor his early promise not to seek unfair power as a government official. The two-term custom he established stood for 150 years until President Franklin Roosevelt, as the Nazis already were taking over Europe, stood for a third term in 1940, and then a fourth in 1944.
The American people chose to re-elect Roosevelt those two additional times. However, when the war was over, they worried that the convention of a two-term presidency would not be easily restored. In 1947 Congress passed, and in 1951 the states ratified, the 23rd Amendment, codifying the two-term presidency.
In 1960, President Kennedy defied convention and appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General. The Senate ratified his choice (and Bobby Kennedy would become one of the great liberal visionaries of his era), but the choice continued to raise concerns about dynasties in the White House. In 1967, President Johnson signed an anti-nepotism law, limiting the appointment of relatives to federal offices, thus restoring a pre-existing norm.
Time and again in our nation’s history, when the norms and customs of our democracy have been trespassed – ones that foster transparency between the governed and those that govern, that limit the ability of those in power to use office for personal and family gain, or that hold leaders accountable to the people – we have had the conversation and when necessary taken action, through law, to restore those norms.
It is in this spirit that I take pride in JCRC’s announcement this week that we would support legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns before appearing on the ballot in Massachusetts. These times are “not normal,” as Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) so eloquently stated this week while announcing his retirement:
“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.”
In these times we are all called to defend the norms of our democracy; the institutions and customs that ensure accountability, transparency, and a healthy, vigorous, and respectful public debate about the issues our nation faces. We at JCRC believe that we must do our part here in Massachusetts with our federal delegation and in our Commonwealth, to protect those norms through the establishment of new laws that preserve the fundamentals which make our nation great.
We do not accept the sundering of our country. I invite you to join us in the work of restoring the norms of our democracy.