The Vice Presidency Should Not Be an Accident Waiting to Happen
by Christopher Bates on Sep 24, 2008
John Adams, while serving as the nation’s first vice president, characterized his job as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, liked to joke that “once there were two brothers: one ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president — and nothing was ever heard from either of them again.” John Nance Garner, a two-term veep, was even more blunt, describing the vice-presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
Under ideal circumstances — namely, the president’s remaining alive — these men were right. Vice presidents are the ugly duckling of American politics. They have only one official, and largely ceremonial, duty: to preside over the Senate. Consequently, the primary consideration for many vice-presidential picks is not their ability to serve but their supposed ability to garner votes. They are often chosen to “balance the ticket” in terms of ideology or geography.
The problem, of course, is that presidents do die. Thirty-seven men have been elected president, and eight of them have died in office. This means that a candidate who chooses his vice president solely on his or her ability to attract votes is engaging in a selfish and risky proposition.
The first vice president to take over the presidency was John Tyler. Elected with William Henry Harrison on the Whig ticket in 1840, Tyler was picked because he was a Southerner and, until his nomination, a lifelong Democrat. When Harrison died of pneumonia a month into his presidency, Tyler took over. Thus, through death and ticket balancing, one ideology gave way to another.
Handicapped by questions about the legitimacy of his presidency, Tyler never did fully gain the nation’s confidence and was known widely as “His Accidency.” If that weren’t enough, Tyler and the party that elected him agreed on nothing, which brought the nation’s political business to a standstill. He therefore turned to the only people whose support he had, Southern Democrats. Tyler’s pandering to this faction helped widen the national divide that led to civil war.
Abraham Lincoln made an even worse vice-presidential pick. Eager to appeal to “War Democrats” and border state Southerners, Lincoln jettisoned Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin in 1864 and ran with Andrew Johnson instead. Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was notable as the only Southern senator who did not resign his seat when his state seceded.
Johnson shared none of the Lincoln’s views on race or on rebuilding the shattered nation. After Lincoln’s death, Johnson’s inability to work with congressional Republicans left millions of white and black Southerners in the lurch. It also helped set the stage for the failures of Reconstruction and for decades of violence and segregation.
Of course, not all vice presidents fail. After replacing William McKinley in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt undertook a broadly successful reform program known as the “Square Deal,” which included trust busting, workplace safety laws, and conservation.
Harry Truman succeeded the deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and enacted the “Fair Deal,” which included integration of the armed forces and housing for the poor. Truman also oversaw the successful reconstruction of Europe after World War II.
Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and led the push for a broad legislative agenda — the “Great Society” — that included health care for the poor, major civil rights protections and funding for the arts.
These three men were all accomplished politicians, nationally well known before being named vice president. Roosevelt was an author, a governor of New York, and a former soldier. Truman was a long-serving senator and widely admired for his efforts to eliminate wasteful spending during World War II. Johnson too was a senator, with six years’ service as Senate majority leader. Americans were used to seeing them as prominent public figures and could accept them as presidents. As John Tyler — and later Gerald Ford — learned, if you do not “seem” presidential, you cannot accomplish much in the office.
In addition, the successful vice presidents all offered continuity from the man they replaced. Although each pair — McKinley and Roosevelt, FDR and Truman, JFK and Johnson — certainly had their differences, they were largely in agreement on matters of philosophy and policy. None of these partnerships involved men from different parties or from antagonistic wings of the same party. A successful vice president must draw on the memory of the dead president, must claim that he or she is carrying on the dead man’s legacy. A radical shift in agenda angers citizens and creates political gridlock.
Given the rate at which presidents die, voters must always consider the qualities of the vice-presidential candidate. And when they do, experience tells us they should ask two questions: Is this person an experienced statesman — someone Americans and foreigners can view as “The President” and not as “His (or Her) Accidency”? And is this person on the same page as the president who chose him or her? A candidate who passes this litmus test has history on his or her side.
Christopher Bates is an adjunct professor of history at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a writer for the History News Service.