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Published: Monday, 10/18/2004

Unnatural act

Simply by holding a hearing on the subject, the Senate Judiciary Committee has made respectable an idea that has been a long time rising to the level of seriousness - changing Article II of the Constitution to allow foreign-born U.S. presidents.

Several members of Congress and academics testified in favor of a constitutional amendment to overcome the restriction that only "natural born" citizens can ascend to the highest office of the land. The last time a congressional hearing was held on this subject was 1870.

In our view, there's a good reason why other generations haven't rushed to change the situation: This isn't a problem and it doesn't need the drastic remedy of a constitutional overhaul.

To be sure, the thought of a popular Austrian-born Californian, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, holding forth against "girlie men" in a future State of the Union address no doubt appeals to some Americans (although not us).

Of course, the resurfacing of this idea is owed more than to just one man. America is a land of immigrants and, in an age of diversity, these naturalized citizens are filling positions all over the country. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and the conservative chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the constitutional requirement has "become an anachronism that is decidedly un-American."

An anachronism it most certainly is, but un-American? It is a brave person who contradicts the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. President and vice president are the only offices in the land that naturalized citizens can't aspire to, but millions of Americans, by virtue of their circumstances and talents, can't reasonably expect to either. Only 43 men have been president, so the injustice of Article II is very marginal.

Our appetite for change may be dulled because the Constitution is under assault by various zealots who would amend it - in order to ban the virtually non-existent problem of flag burning, to make discrimination official with a gay-marriage prohibition, to take powers away from the Supreme Court to rule on such issues as the Pledge of Allegiance.

If the energy has to be mustered to challenge a constitutional anachronism, it might be better directed toward abolishing the Electoral College, a problem waiting to happen.

Various options were suggested at the judiciary committee hearing that would make the change less radical, for example making a naturalized citizen eligible for the presidency after 35 years. But why change at all? Fortunately, the nation hasn't reached the stage at which good, natural-born candidates are nowhere to be found.



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