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All Americans Can't Grow Up to Be President

It's not who you are but where you're born that might slam the Oval Office door

September 04, 2003|Robert B. Cox | Robert B. Cox is a financial commentator with breaking in London.

On July 17, 1945, the king of Yugoslavia faced a dilemma. His son, Crown Prince Alexander II, was born that day in Suite 212 at Claridge's Hotel in London. Yet for the heir to the throne ever to lay claim to his kingdom, just vacated by the Nazis, he had to be born on Yugoslav territory.

Luckily for King Peter II and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Greece, Winston Churchill came to the rescue. The prime minister declared the luxurious hotel room in central London a slice of Yugoslavia. As a result, when communism fell, the prince returned triumphantly to his homeland in 1991 with his title intact.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's parents did not have the foresight, or the connections, to have their little plot in Graz, Austria, designated American soil. As a result, the weightlifting movie star is constitutionally forbidden from ever rising to the presidency of the United States. So, too, is one of his opponents in the race for the California governorship, Arianna Huffington, a columnist born in Athens -- Greece, not Georgia. Ditto for Jerry Springer, the British-born celebrity talk-show host who dabbled with a U.S. Senate run in Ohio.

All that stands in their way from rising to the apex of American politics -- aside from the small matter of the necessary electoral consensus -- is this clause in the U.S. Constitution: "No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President." These 31 words make the ultimate American dream -- immigrant makes good, becomes president -- unattainable.

In the interests of full disclosure, it may also technically forbid my kids from ever winning the presidency. Sam and Ethan Cox, like Arnold, Arianna and Jerry, are foreign-born -- Milan and London, respectively. They aren't immigrants -- my wife, Hannah, and I are U.S. citizens, so they are too. But because we failed to prevail upon prime ministers Tony Blair and Romano Prodi to declare the operating theaters where Hannah gave birth as terra Americana, their citizenship isn't precisely of the "natural born" variety either.

Now, setting aside whether my children -- or indeed our latest celebrities-cum-politicos -- are in any way qualified for higher office, this is just plain silly. It may have made sense when the founding fathers, fresh from a bloody war of independence, feared attempts by crusty European aristocrats to return the nation to monarchic rule. At least that appears to be the basis for the clause, according to Jay Wexler, a professor of law at Boston University and noted friend of the Cox children.

Wexler cites a letter to George Washington from John Jay contemporaneous with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in which Jay writes: "Permit me to hint, whether it would be wise and 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." Could it be that the prejudices of a few founders will forever subject our migrant millions -- not to mention my kids -- to a political glass ceiling?

Changing things would require ratification of an amendment to the Constitution by three-quarters of state legislatures. (Action movie fans may recall a fantasy-world precedent. In "Demolition Man," Sylvester Stallone's policeman character is transported to 2026. Once there, his tour guide, played by Sandra Bullock, happens to mention the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. "Stop! He was president?" asks Stallone. "Yes. Even though he was not born in this country, his popularity at the time caused the 61st Amendment," Bullock replies.)

Under normal circumstances this would be tough -- we've only had 27 amendments in 217 years. And raising the issue now, with the very real prospect of Arnold, a Republican, taking over the world's fifth-largest economy would provoke howls of opposition from Democrats. That's why chez Cox backs Arianna's bid for governor, and we would have backed Jerry's for the Senate. We want everyone -- not just Republicans -- to have an interest in repealing the foreign-born exclusion.

Of course, a win for Schwarzenegger may be the best way to finally provoke a Supreme Court interpretation of the relevant clause. After all, he is a man whose movie career was based on sequels, and there is no better follow-up to "California: The Governor" than "America: The President." This would naturally lead to clarifying the question of whether someone born abroad to American parents also qualifies as "natural born."

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