Outlawing slavery. Giving women the right to vote. Ending the poll tax.
Through more than two centuries, Americans have amended the U.S. Constitution only 17 times. Now, say campus experts, debate over a proposed 28th Amendment is focused almost as much on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as it is on the law of the land.
Born in Austria, Schwarzenegger is blocked by Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution, which reads, "No person except a natural born citizen ... shall be eligible to the office of President." Schwarzenegger, 57, has been a U.S. citizen since 1983.
Tinkering with tradition
Edmund Constantini, a longtime observer of both California and Washington politics and professor emeritus of political science, says, "Why exclude people on the basis of where they were born?"
Constantini noted that Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, was born in the British West Indies. Other notable public figures in recent decades born outside America include two former secretaries of state - Henry Kissinger, who was born in Germany, and Madeline Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia.
The Constitution can be amended two ways, Constantini said. Two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate must approve the proposal, followed by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states; or two-thirds of the states can call for a constitutional convention, but any amendment would still need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The latter route occurred only once, in 1791, at this nation's first and only Constitutional Convention.
"People view the Constitution with such respect that we don't often tinker with it," Constantini said.
Political scientist Brian Sala, who studies national politics, says he does not sense a "tremendous groundswell of popular dissatisfaction" with the prohibition against the foreign born from becoming president.
But Sala noted that recent legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California and U.S Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah would allow any naturalized citizen for 20 years to be eligible. Schwarzenegger celebrated the 20th anniversary of his citizenship in 2003.
"This approach removes any plausible fear that 'foreign powers' might be able to manipulate American politics by offering up a newly minted, currently popular individual as a candidate," said Sala.
While he acknowledges that other plausible future candidates exist beside Schwarzenegger, including Canadian-born Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, he wonders if the presidential talent pool is already deep enough.
"With more than 100 million-plus eligible Americans," he said, "there should never be any pressing need to broaden the set of eligibles in order to get a competent president."
The personal touch
Not many political candidates are action movie stars of global proportions.
Schwarzenegger's vast public appeal is a huge plus for the Republican Party, says Kim Elsbach, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Management. She researches how organizations, their leaders and individuals acquire and maintain images, identities and reputations.
"His popularity extends across party lines," Elsbach said of Schwarzenegger, "and he gives the Republicans a good shot at holding onto the White House."
Serving as the governor of California is no small feat, Elsbach said, particularly when it hosts one of the world's largest economies. So he has a "legitimate record as a U.S. politician, even though he's from Austria," she said.
Elsbach said the Constitution has been amended many times, and is a "living representation of our society's values."
'Not very likely'
Dean Simonton, a psychology professor who studies genius, creativity and leadership, does not believe that such an amendment in itself would be bad.
"One could argue that extending eligibility to naturalized citizens would be consistent with the spirit of our democratic principles," he said. "However, the consequences could be unfortunate if the amendment were pushed through with a particular person in mind -- namely Arnold."
Most of the attempts to amend the Constitution have turned out very well, Simonston said. The only amendment that was a "big mistake," he says, was the one establishing Prohibition, which was later rescinded.
"Most of these amendments either extended individual rights or broadened suffrage," he said. "Only one (the 22nd) directly concerned the presidency in a substantial way, and this was to limit the president to two terms."
Recent attempts have not faired very well -- the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, for example, which failed to get the requisite approval from the state legislatures, he said.
Simonton said the Constitution represents "general political principles that transcend" partisanship.
"Once that precedent is established, what would prevent another amendment allowing the president to serve more than two terms?"
Historic relic or safeguard?
Carlton Larson, who teaches constitutional law and formerly served as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals, describes the provision concerning foreign-born citizens as a "historical relic." It derives from late 18th-century concerns that European monarchies would try to interfere with American government.
"By ensuring that the President is a natural-born citizen, the Constitution prevented the presidency from falling into the hands of a European monarch," Larson said.
He said its practical application in the 21st century, however, is simply to exclude "otherwise qualified Americans" from seeking the office of President. "I generally favor removing this restriction on the presidency," said Larson. But he has "serious concerns" about it being implemented simply to benefit one particular figure.
Many people may oppose the amendment simply because they do not want to see Schwarzenegger become president, he said.
In the spirit of the Hatch and Rohrbacher bills, Larson sug-gests offering an amendment that would become effective 30 years after ratification. "Under that scenario, no one would know which political party or politician is likely to benefit or to lose from the amendment," Larson said.
And where does Schwarzenegger stand? He recently told CBS' 60 Minutes that he is open to the idea, and a Web site backing the idea -- http://www.amendus.org -- has been running 30-second TV ads in California.
"We think it's time for a change," reads the site's home page.
Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, email@example.com