Over the years, Americans have watched as Austrian body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger evolved from an athlete into an actor... from a movie star into governor of California. Now, many are wondering if his next step will be into the White House. A group based in northern California is trying to amend the Constitution so that naturalized citizens like Governor Schwarzenegger may one day become president.
In the film Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone plays a man who's cryogenically preserved for nearly three decades and wakes up in the year 2032 to find that life in America has changed.... a lot. A character played by Sandra Bullock tells him that Arnold Schwarzenegger had once been elected president of the United States, explaining, "even though he was not born in this country, his popularity at the time caused the 61st amendment…" at which point, the Stallone character doesn't want to hear any more.
When Demolition Man came out in 1993, the idea of amending the Constitution so that an Austrian-born film star could be president might have seemed pretty far-fetched. But in the year 2005, Lissa Morganthaler-Jones leads a group of Californians working to make it a reality. She met Arnold Schwarzenegger a few years ago, when she was invited to a campaign event. "I went thinking '[He's a] muscle-bound moron, but they're talking about him running for governor, I gotta check this guy out,'" she recalls. "Sure enough, within 5 minutes of meeting him, probably, and listening to him talk, I thought he could go all the way to the White House."
But, she knew he couldn't really go all the way because of Article 2, section 1 clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that only natural-born citizens can serve as president.
So she decided to try to change the Constitution so that Arnold Schwarzenegger and the approximately 12 million other naturalized citizens could run for president. Ms. Morganthaler-Jones argues that people can't choose which country they're born in, but if they choose to live in the United States and can pass the citizenship test, they deserve to be treated like every other citizen. "If you go to the kind of trouble they have to go to, to get yourself here, learn the language, read well enough you can pass that exam," she points out, "I think the rest of us ought to have a shot at voting for you."
Since August of last year, her group - "Amend for Arnold" - has aired ads on cable TV, and she's traveled across the country to try and get their message out. At the recent IronMan Pro Fitness Expo in Pasadena, Ms. Morganthaler-Jones set up an Amend for Arnold booth among the stands selling weightlifting machines, vitamins and gym memberships.
She explained to curious passersby why the Constitution should be changed - just like muscles, she told them, it needs to be flexed every now and then to stay strong. Rob Bolton stopped and signed up on the Amend for Arnold mailing list. He says the governor would make an excellent president, because "he's the essence of the American dream. He came to America with nothing and now he's the governor of California and pretty soon hopefully he'll be the president."
Though the Amend for Arnold message went over well with the bodybuilders, most Americans don't like the notion of changing the Constitution to let immigrants run for president. According to a recent Gallup poll, 2/3 of the country opposes the idea.
Congressman Tom Lantos was born in Hungary and has represented California on Capitol Hill for 24 years. He says even though he believes immigrants can play an important role in American politics, he doesn't think they should be allowed in the Oval Office. In explaining his position, he says, "It is mandatory for someone who chooses to be president of the U.S. to have had the total experience of living in the United States from the youngest age on."
Opponents of the idea also cite the original reason why the founding fathers prohibited immigrants from holding the highest office: concern that they might have loyalties to their homeland that could interfere with their ability to serve the interests of the United States.
Changing the Constitution is a long, complicated process, which is why it's only been added to 17 times since 1791. An amendment requires a 2/3 vote of both houses of
Congress and ratification by 3/4 of the states, within a set period time, usually 7 years. Eugene Volokh, who specializes in constitutional law at UCLA, says passing a Naturalized Citizen for President amendment would be an uphill battle. "I think they would face some opposition and face a lot of apathy," he predicts. "I think it's the sort of thing that a lot of voters and a lot of legislators just aren't that interested in."
And even if the Amend for Arnold movement succeeds, there's no guarantee the man they're supporting would run for the office. Although he supports amending the Constitution, Mr. Schwarzenegger has said he's not interested in the White House… but on at least one occasion, asked if he'd run, he's said, "Yes, absolutely. Why not? With my way of thinking, you always shoot for the top."