The vice presidency
By Jules Witcover
Not too long ago, the office of the vice presidency was the brunt of demeaning jokes. One held that a woman had two sons; one was lost at sea, the other became Vice President of the United States, and neither was ever heard from again. In 1848, an otherwise politically ambitious Daniel Webster rejected the Whig Party nomination for vice president, observing: “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
It was and is true enough that the occupant’s only assigned tasks are to preside over the Senate with a vote only to break a tie, and to assume the presidency in event of the death or incapacitation of the occupant. But as the first American presidential standby, John Adams, famously wrote to his wife Abigail: “In this I am nothing, but I could be everything.”
It eventually came to pass, when Adams was elected in his own right when Washington chose not to seek a third term. But vice presidents thereafter seldom were similarly rewarded. After Adams, only five vice presidents succeeded to the highest office by death of the president, and only one, Gerald Ford, became president through the resignation of his superior.
The current veep, former Sen. Kamala Harris of California, only the second woman nominated for the second office and the first woman of color to hold it, is particularly in the public limelight now, considering that President Joe Biden, at 78, is the oldest occupant to date. Although Biden is in demonstrably good health six months in to his ambitious presidency, Harris is undergoing inordinate scrutiny as she leads his efforts to cope with the overflow of immigrants at our southern border.
The office of the vice presidency itself has undergone major alteration in how the occupant is chosen. In the first election, Washington was awarded the presidency and his runner-up, Thomas Jefferson, assumed the vice presidency. But Washington was a Federalist and Jefferson a rival Anti-Federalist, meaning that death of Washington could sharply shift factional control of the young nation.
The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, thereby provided for separate elections for president and vice president, facilitating the possibility of one of the two dominant factions remaining in power in the event of a presidential death in office.
In any event, the vice presidency was not much of a stepping stone to the presidency in the earliest years. Several of the earliest occupants — including Aaron Burr, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Daniel Tompkins and John C. Calhoun — were not particularly prized by the presidents under whom they served. Burr especially was an accident waiting happen, as he killed Alexander Hamilton in a gun duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, and then escaped across the Hudson River and went on to commit other major personal and political disasters.
It was not until the eighth vice president, Martin Van Buren, elected in 1832, that his president, Andrew Jackson, chose him as his running mate and made him a key polIcy adviser in his administration. Van Buren had been Jackson’s presidential campaign manager and then his secretary of state in his first White House term. When Calhoun resigned as Jackson’s first veep, Van Buren replaced him
Perhaps the most significant case of president handpicking his running mate came in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln shunted aside his first-term vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, a strong critic of slavery, in favor of a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, believing he needed a Union fusion ticket to win reelection. When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson as president was a critical force in the flawed Reconstruction policies in the South after the Civil War.
More recently, in 1974, when then president Nixon decided his flamboyant vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, should be removed from the line of presidential succession, he floated the notion of appointing him to the Supreme Court! He finally was dissuaded by cooler heads. In 1988, President George H.W. Bush chose lightly regarded Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, to the dismay of close advisers. He did so after his own president, Ronald Reagan, was wounded by a would-be assassin, putting Bush himself, as the cliche puts it, a heartbeat away from to the presidency.
On the other hand, ailing President Franklin D. Roosevelt was wisely persuaded in 1944 to choose seasoned Sen. Harry S. Truman as his likely successor. Truman eventually was regarded one of our greatest chief executives. Such examples should be sufficient to make the case for a diligent and wise vice-presidential selection. But it remains a possible crapshoot, when even the most otherwise high-minded presidential nominee may weigh what’s best in his own mind for his own election.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at email@example.com.