Ronald Reagan: Temporary Transfer of Power

colon cancer
A 1984 proctoscopic examination disclosed a small polyp in Reagan's colon. Biopsy showed it was benign. In March 1985, another polyp was found, as were trace amounts of blood in his stool. A change in Reagan's diet eliminated the blood. He underwent endoscopic removal of the polyp and colonoscopy on July 12, 1985, at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. Colonoscopy disclosed a second, more dangerous tumor -- a villous adenoma -- that could only be removed by surgery. 1a

Although Nancy Reagan apparently preferred to delay surgery until the following week on the advice of her astrologer, Reagan preferred to have the surgery the next day -- to avoid having to repeat the colonic preparation 1b.

The operation lasted 2 hours and 53 minutes. The right-sided portion of Reagan's colon was removed -- about 2 feet of length. Exploration of other abdominal structures found no spread of the cancer. The tumor was ultimately classified as a "Duke's B," meaning it had invaded the muscle of the colon, but was confined to the bowel wall 1c Post-operatively, one of the surgeons remarked about the then-74-year-old President: "This man has the insides of a forty year old" 2a. Reagan left the hospital on July 20 3.

As a result of the surgery, Reagan transferred Presidential power to Vice President Bush for 7 hours and 50 minutes SEE BELOW 1d. It is often written that Reagan invoked section 3 of the 25th Amendment to make this transfer, but he did not explicitly invoke the Amendment 1e.

With the letter below, Reagan temporarily transferred Presidential power to Vice President George  H.W. Bush on July 13, 1985. Bush held power from 11:28 a.m. until 7:22 p.m. that day. 3
July 13, 1985 Dear Mr. President: (Dear Mr. Speaker:)

I am about to undergo surgery during which time I will be briefly and temporarily incapable of discharging the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States.

After consultation with my Counsel and the Attorney General, I am mindful of the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and of the uncertainties of its application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity. I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one.

Nevertheless, consistent with my long-standing arrangement with Vice President George Bush, and not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this Office in the future, I have determined and it is my intention and direction that Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead commencing with the administration of anesthesia to me in this instance.

I shall advise you and the Vice President when I determine that I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of this Office.

May God bless this Nation and us all.


Ronald Reagan

Reagan reasserted power with the following letter:
July 13, 1985

Dear Mr. President: (Dear Mr. Speaker:)

Following up on my letter to you of this date, please be advised I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States. I have informed the Vice President of my determination and my resumption of those powers and duties.


Ronald Reagan

Identical copies of both letters were sent to Strom Thurmond, President pro tempore of the Senate, and Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Cited Sources
  1. Abrams, Herbert L. "The President Has Been Shot": Confusion, Disability, and the 25th Amendment in the Aftermath of the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.
    a  pp.197-198  b  p.198  c  p.202  d  p.204  e  pp.199-201

    Comment: Rigorous and enormously thought provoking. Abrams tells not only the story of the shooting itself, but, more importantly, the maneuvering to disguise Reagan's slow recovery afterwards and forestall any consideration of transferring power to the Vice President.

  2. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.285

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  3. Available on the web:

    Comment: This letter is deposited in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The online version of the letter has been incorrectly annotated by the Library staff to underplay the seriousness of the condition Reagan had. The annotation says the operation was to remove a polyp, when it was actually to remove a malignant cancer well past the polyp stage.

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