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'Third Termite' Stages a Comeback : Reagan Admirer Heads Drive to Repeal Limit on Tenure

August 24, 1986|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — The old Third Termite is back. Just like clockwork.

Unheard of since 1973, when America last had a President serving his second term, the Termite--a usually derogatory reference to a third presidential term--is again chomping its way into the American political scene.

It is being aided in its advance by an unlikely crusader in an unlikely place: Bill Keenan, a graphic designer in Portland, just across the Columbia River from the other Washington, the one where such matters are not decided.

"With each passing day, I have become increasingly perplexed over the fact that I will not be able to vote for the person whom I feel to be the most qualified . . . for the reason that he has already served two terms," Keenan says, explaining his drive to put Ronald Reagan in the White House for a third term.

Keenan is one of those curiosities of the American landscape: an average citizen of little political commitment who somehow, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, finds himself propelling a cause, working to right a perceived wrong. His previous political experience lay in designing buttons and bumper stickers. Now he wants to change the Constitution.

Pushed to Lead Campaign

"I never dreamed of Bill Keenan doing this," he says, "but my Democratic father and sister kept pushing me: 'You've got a responsibility to our democratic system. You know you should do it.' Against my better judgment, I decided to jump in and do it. I felt I had a responsibility to get the word out.

"I realize I am small-time, and I didn't think I had much of a chance, but I said, 'Damn 'em anyway.' "

Keenan is trying to revive national debate of one of the oldest questions of the American Republic: How long should a President stay in office? Keenan has set up a political action committee, called The Third Term, to raise funds, and has gone on the radio talk-show circuit to push for repeal of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Since 1951, it has limited presidents to two terms.

He wants the repeal accomplished in time for Reagan to run again and serve four more years.

Keenan is not alone.

Republicans Back Effort

Last month, about 300 Reagan supporters rallied in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, to call for repeal of the 22nd Amendment. Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.) has sent out 300,000 letters seeking support of the repeal effort.

"If Ronald Reagan could have even one more term in office, I'm confident he will set this nation on a course of prosperity, opportunity and security which will carry us well into the 21st Century," said Vander Jagt, who has introduced legislation for the repeal.

(Some observers have labeled the effort a fund-raising gimmick because, in calling for repeal, Vander Jagt, who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also asked for contributions to help elect Republican congressmen this year.)

"It's starting to have a life of its own," Keenan said of the drive recently. "Something's going to happen."

A two-term limit on the presidency was an American political custom that began with a George Washington weary of public life and ended when Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940. The Republican response then was swift, and the Third Termite was born. "No Third Term-ites!" and "Out Stealing Third!" became campaign rallying cries. Parade balloons caricatured the Third Termite, who also appeared in the Pogo comic strip.

Old Political Issue

Just how long a President should be allowed had long been an issue, however. In 1947, Congressional Digest counted 125 resolutions, introduced in Congress since 1890, to limit presidential tenure. One would have limited it to five years, 79 of them advocated six years, three were for seven years, three for eight years, and 14 of the resolutions sought a limit of two, four-year terms.

In 1940, though, the debate raged right down to the election for the first time in the nation's history. Roosevelt went on to serve a third term and was elected to a fourth. The movement to limit presidential tenure grew. Proponents saw the limitation as a curb on what then seemed a worldwide trend toward dictatorship.

"Without rotation in the office of President, I do not see how we can hope to escape a dictatorship," argued Sen. Arthur Capper (R-Kan.) in congressional testimony in 1945. "There is some ground for the assertion that the difference between a good dictator and a bad dictator is just a matter of time."

"A democracy must develop through the advancement of principles and programs, and not by way of idolatrous belief in leaders," said Rep. Charles M. La Follette (R-Ind.) in a 1946 article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Reflection on Roosevelt

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