The machinations of palace politicians back in the days when the Sultan conspired with the Keeper of the Seraglio were mock-tragic attempts to make political play amusing. President Eisenhower's "understanding" with Nixon stirs up fond memories of those Arabian fantasies, and it looks as if the palace guard is once again emerging as a political reality.
Since the President's first illness in 1955, the problem of presidential succession has been widely debated, but that is all. Eisenhower and Nixon, however, have settled all problems between themselves, and the President has assured the nation that if now, God forbid, he should become in capacitated and unable to execute his duties of office, "Mr. Nixon knows exactly what he should do . . . ."
Last night, the nation at last found out what Mr. Nixon has known for almost a week. Not that the nation had any right to know; matters of greater importance-the Gaither Report on the state of American defenses, for example, have been securely hidden from the public.
It is, however, an encouraging sign that the White House has released the text of the Eisen-hower-Nixon accord. But public opinion, not political enlightenment, must take credit for forcing this action on the Administration.
The President had previously said that he must have a constitutional amendment to settle the complex issue of presidential succession; certainly any "understanding" with Nixon must have no legal status. Official disclosures of the content of the accord, for example, indicate that should Eisen-hower become disabled, Nixon would become "Acting President" until the President had recovered.
"Acting President," unfortunately, is an office with no constitutional status. Outside the law, it is responsible to no other government body or agency, least of all to the public.
Eisenhower's willingness to make a non-legal "understanding" smacks of palace politics. The Presidency is not a personal possession to be so lightly willed to Mr. Nixon. While the office would, in any event, be his if Eisenhower should be unable to execute his constitutional duties, it should be his only after certain legal procedures had been followed.
Legislative laxity on the disability question does not, in any case, warrant such irresponsible action on the part of the President. There is, after all, a Constitution which Eisenhower has sworn to defend, and this fact would at least imply that major revisions in presidential succession be legitimate, that is, constitutional.
It is doubtful if the problem of presidential succession has been settled once and for all, and no matter how fearful the President might be of another sudden illness, he must lobby vigorously for a responsible constitutional amendment.