Note—We pick up the story of the American Vice Presidency today with a non-entity that surprised himself by discovering never suspected integrity and run through more than a 150 head spinning years of our national second bananas.
That would be Chester Allan Arthur, the former Collector of the Port of New York, a patronage rich plum. He had been forced on Garfield at the Republican convention by Arthur’s political sponsor and benefactor, New York Senator Roscoe Conklin, leader of the Stalwart faction which stood by the patronage spoils system and adamantly opposed civil service reform.
Once in office, however, Arthur seemed to have a conversion experience. He curtly refused to honor Conklin’s list of proposed appointments to Cabinet posts, lucrative collectorships, judgeships, postmasters, and diplomatic posts. He also began the work toward Civil Service Reform that would be completed by his successors. Not surprisingly, Arthur was not nominated by his party for a full term. He was replaced by former Secretary of State James G. Blaine of Maine. The Plumed Knight, however, promptly lost to conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York.
Cleveland was out four years later replaced by Benjamin Harrison, grandson of the first President to die in office but returned in 1892 Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, founder of a multi generation political dynasty, as his Vice President.
By 1896 the Republicans had run out of Civil War Generals and were down to a lowly Major, William McKinley of Ohio, the political creation of Senator Marc Hanna’s national political machine and the architect of enshrining big business as the principle pillar of the GOP. After McKinley’s first Vice President Garret Hobart of New Jersey died in office during his first term, Hanna and other party bosses tapped the reform governor of New York and popular Spanish American War hero Theodore Roosevelt to run in 1900. They hoped that they could safely isolate the hyperactive do-gooder in the dead end backwater of the Vice Presidency where many a political career had gone to die.
|The ticket of William McKinnley and Theodore Roosevelt got the cigar box label salute.|
Unfortunately for them, another assassin’s bullet elevated “that damned cowboy” to the White House, which he hit like a whirlwind. The advocate for the strenuous life transformed the modern presidency from rather passive administration to an activist shaper of national goals and policies. He busted trusts, created National Parks and Monuments among other conservation achievements, modernized and rebuilt the Navy, settled a war between Russia and Japan, and started a revolution so he could build the Panama Canal.
With the experience of Arthur and Roosevelt in mind, party bosses started vetting Vice Presidential candidates more carefully to prevent any more run away trains. Candidates tended to mainstream and safe and chosen among pools of like prospects based on their capacity to boost the ticket by geographic balance or special appeal to a swing constituency.
The next test of the Vice Presidency came under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who picked folksy progressive Indiana Governor Thomas R. Marshall as his running mate. But the staid and reserved Wilson found Marshall’s humor and storytelling so irksome that he moved the Vice President’s office out of the White House. By the way, it is unclear which Vice President first got office space in the Mansion. They also had a fall out over policy. But Marshall was popular enough to keep on the ticket for a second term. He was also an effective President of the Senate and helped formulate the first rules that allowed a closure vote to end filibusters during war time. After World War I he became the first Vice President to convene and preside over Cabinet meetings while Wilson was in France for Peace Talks.
After Wilson’s debilitating stroke during his intense campaign for public support for the League of Nations, Marshall refused Cabinet pleas to assume the duties of the Presidency during Wilson’s recovery. The Constitution never explicitly identified the circumstances under which this could be done or whether power could be returned to the President after a recovery. Wilson declined to intervene fearing that he could establish a precedent that might be used in the future as a cover for a coup d’état. Instead Wilson’s wife Edith was said to have become the de facto President.
The next Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, was picked after a dead-locked convention finally settled on Ohio’s Warren G. Harding as the least offensive candidate to all party factions. Silent Cal had gained fame as the Massachusetts Governor who smashed the 1919 Boston Police Strike by firing the whole force and banning them from any public employment for life. That kind of anti-labor toughness was music to the ears of Republican business backers. When the scandal plagued Harding died on a west coast tour in 1923 Coolidge became President. He presided over the Jazz Age boom years as a hyper conservative who advocated minimal government action on all fronts.
When Coolidge declined to run for a second full term of his own, Herbert Hoover picked the only person of non-European decent ever to be Vice President. Charles Curtis of Kansas, the former Majority Leader of the Senate, was half Native American and an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation.
|John Nance Gardner|
The Great Depression ended a nearly 70 year run of Republican domination of the White House interrupted only by the terms of Cleveland and Wilson. Franklin D. Roosevelt the first of his four elected terms with the first in a mini-parade of Vice Presidents—John Nance Gardner—Cactus Jack to his admirers was Texan and former Speaker of the House who was brought on as a Southerner and staunch conservative to balance the ticket. Things were fine as long as FDR adhered to his campaign rhetoric of balancing budget. But in the midst of bank failures and staggering unemployment, Roosevelt turned to spending money of direct relief and trying anything that would stick to turn the economy around. That experimentation quickly became the New Deal and a host of Federal programs that Nance did not approve of. None the less the men ran again together in 1936. But Garner was opposed to the administration’s support of unionization particularly after the wave of sit-down strikes in 1937. He also recoiled including equal benefits to Blacks and Mexican-Americans in programs, the high priority for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The final breech came when Gardner actively worked to kill Roosevelts Court packing scheme in 1937. The two men barely spoke after that and Gardner was effectively the enemy of the New Deal from his chair as Senate President. Perhaps that is why Gardner came up with the pithy quote most identified with his office—“The Vice Presidency is not worth a warm bucket of spit”—although the original remark evidently referred to a fluid drained from lower parts of the anatomy.
Naturally, Roosevelt dumped him in 1940 when he decided to run for an unprecedented third term. His new Vice President was agronomist and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, one of the most liberal and outspoken of the New Dealers. When war took over center stage, however, FDR and his right hand man Harry Hopkins began to look at Wallace’s brand of New Dealer as an impediment to the war effort.
When the ailing Roosevelt ran for a fourth and final time he replaced Wallace with Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman who had made a name for himself—as well as becoming something of a nuisance to the administration as the tough minded Senate special committee on waste and abuse in military contracts. Bringing him on board made things quieter in the Senate while boldly staking out credentials for the administration as its own watch dog. After taking office in January 1942 Truman, despite Roosevelt’s alarming physical deterioration, was not brought into the inner circle at the White House and kept in the dark about many military matters and about increasing tensions over post war arrangements with Russia. Famously, he did not know anything about the Atomic bomb program until he was briefed shortly after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1942. No wonder he felt like “the moon and the stars have fallen on me.”
|Harry S. Truman|
Many people, not the least of which was Eleanor, thought that Truman was a light weight and unfit for the Presidency. Instead he would quickly prove to be both tough minded and sharp in the way that many widely read self educated men are. Anyone who took Truman for a fool or pushover was in for a rude awakening. In 1948 with Congress in Republican hands, the Cold War getting under way in earnest, and his own party shattered left and right with the defection of the Dixiecrats over his civil rights policies and his VP predecessor Henry Wallace leading a challenge from the left calling for accommodation with war-time ally the USSR, Truman fought back with his famous whistle stop Give ‘em Hell Harry tour and upset Republican Thomas Dewy to win a term on his own.
Perhaps it was the unexpected success of Truman, but in his wake the Vice Presidency began to be seen differently. Instead of a throw away office to be filled with any politically useful hack it became the grooming ground for future Presidential candidates. Almost every subsequent VP starting with Dwight Eisenhower’s uneasy relationship with anti-Communist star Richard Nixon, came to be viewed as the natural successor.
|It was a close call, but Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech kept him on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.|
During the 1952 campaign Eisenhower had to come to the defense of Nixon amid charges that he used a political slush fund as personal income. Eisenhower came close to dumping him until his famous televised self-defense, the Checkers Speech. Especially in his second term Eisenhower use Nixon to represent the country abroad. He faced Yankee Go Home rioters in Latin America and engaged Nikita Khrushchev in a kitchen debate in an exposition in Moscow. After the President’s heart attack, Nixon was included more regularly in high level security briefings. Nixon ran in 1960 and narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy picked high powered Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate and then assigned him high level administration duties—a break from the past—including overseeing the nation’s space program. Other presidents would follow suit giving their VPs more to do, including them in cabinet and high level policy discussions while they spent less and less time presiding over the Senate except for ceremonial occasions and when a dramatic tie vote on an important issue came up. The Vice Presidency for the first time was becoming fully integrated in the.
|On November 22, 1963 Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One on the tarmac in Dallas with a stunned Jacqueline Kennedy still in her blood soaked suit next to him.|
Johnson, of course, became President when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He would surprise many as a first Southerner in the White House excepting border state Truman and Wilson whose mother was a Virginian, since before the Civil War when he completed Kennedy’s legacy and twisted arms to get two landmark Civil Right Acts passed. He also launched his War on Poverty, an echo of the New Deal. On the other hand he let himself be talked into ever deeper involvement in the Vietnam War that he had inherited from Kennedy. By 1968 he found himself abandoned by White Southerners who flocked to Alabama segregationist Governor George Wallace on one hand and rising anti-war protests on the other. After a disappointing showing against Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary Johnson went on television to proclaim “I will not seek, nor will I accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for President.”
|Hubert Humphrey accepts the nomination.|
His VP, liberal icon Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota was able to win nomination only after a Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 which was marked by demonstrations and a police riot in the streets and chaos on the floor. Humphrey lost that fall to Richard Nixon on the comeback trail.
Nixon ran as a law and order candidate with a secret plan to end the war. He won in an Electoral College landslide. He balanced the ticket with Maryland Governor Sprio T. Agnew who had a reputation as a relative party liberal and as a Greek-American was the first Vice President not of British Isles or Northern Europe. Agnew became the administration’s designated attack dog going after liberals and the critical press with famous alliterative sound bites—i.e. “nattering nabobs of negativism.
But while Nixon was slowly being dragged down by the Watergate scandal, Agnew was indicted for amazingly cheap and penny ante corruption as Baltimore County Executive and Governor even continuing to take cash as Vice President. He was forced to resign on October 10, 1973 and became the first and only Vice President convicted of felony charges when he accepted a deal to plead guilty to a single count of tax evasion and money laundering on $29,000 in bribes as Governor.
Nixon then chose House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford of Michigan—the first Vice President chosen under the terms of the 25th Amendment which allowed vacancies to be filled by appointment with the advice and consent of the Senate. By this time Nixon himself was in deep trouble and facing possible impeachment. Legend had it that he chose the affable but supposedly low wattage Ford because he believed that no one would drive him from office if the Congressman was in line to take the job. In fact Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert recalled that Congressional leaders from both houses and both parties, “gave him no choice” but to pick Ford. When Nixon resigned seven months later in August of 1972 Ford became the first President to ascend to office without ever having run on a national ticket.
The Accidental President got to appoint his own Vice President and shocked conservatives by naming liberal Republican icon former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rocky became the first VP to occupy the new official residence in Washington’s in the former Naval Observatory building. In January 1979, two years after leaving office, Rockefeller died during a tryst with a 27 year old aide.
Although the pleasant Ford was a welcome change from the scowling and brooding Nixon, the weight of Watergate was too great to overcome. He was defeated by Democratic Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and his running mate, Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota. The Carter administration was burned with the OPEC oil Boycott, stagflation, crumbling rustbelt cities, that famous malaise and finally the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.
Ex-movie star and conservative Governor of California Ronald Reagan swept the Carter Mondale team aside in 1980. Transplanted New Englander cum Texas oilman George H.W. Bush, a former Congressman and CIA Director was Regan’s pick for Vice President. When Reagan was wounded by would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. Bush rushed back to Washington from Texas but never assumed official duties. Subsequently he and Regan began an unusually close relationship having weekly lunches together he also accepted a number of high profile assignments from the president in the national security area as well as heading a waste in government taskforce that began to shore up his shaky relationship with party conservatives.
|Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush at the 1984 Republican National Convention.|
In 1984 Reagan and Bush faced former Vice President Walter Mondale and his running mate New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman and first Italian candidate. Although the earthy Ferraro bested the patrician Bush in their sole Vice Presidential debate, Reagan’s popularity coasted the ticket to an easy victory.
On July 13, 1985, Reagan underwent surgery to remove polyps from his colon which required him to undergo general anesthesia. Bush became the first Vice President to officially temporarily assume the duties of President. He was acting President for about eight hours during which time nothing much important happened
Almost as soon as the second Reagan term began, Bush started planning to hi,,,,,s own run for the presidency. He raised money and courted party leaders. He spent a lot of time trying to placate conservatives who were convinced he was a liberal in Texas clothing. In his convention acceptance speech in addition to his famous 1000 points of light, he touched on and endorsed most conservative hot button issue and uttered his equally famous “read my lips, no new taxes!” pledge.
|When Dan Quayle misspelled potato on a classroom visit he was widely and probably unfairly mocked as stupid.|
For his running mate he chose youthful and obscure Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who quickly turned out to be a pretty boy light weight. Many thought that Bush was nervous about being overshadowed by a better known or more accomplished choice. He said he thought Quayle’s good looks would help him with women. No matter, the pair had no trouble trouncing the inept campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Texas Senator Lloyd Bensten. Bush thus became the first Vice President elevated directly to the Presidency by election since Martin Van Buren.
Unfortunately for him, like Van Buren, he was destined to be a one termer.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton burst onto the national scene with high energy enthusiasm, boyish charm, a reputation as a policy wonk, and a certain wife so politically talented herself that they were advertized as getting two for the price of one. Despite bimbo eruptions and Hillary’s seeming derision of moms who stay home and bake cookies, Clinton bested rivals including California Governor Jerry Brown to win the nomination.
He defied conventional wisdom in picking a running mate. He did not balance the ticket but opted for another young moderate liberal Southerner, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee. Clinton said that he resonated with Gore and felt comfortable. Even their high power wives, Hillary and Tipper Gore seemed bonded. Instead of sending his VP candidate separately out on the road as an attack dog saying things it was not polite for the Presidential nominee say, both couples hit the road together in campaign coach road tour.
|Happy warriors, the Clintons and Gores on their campaign bus.|
The close relationship continued in office which was cemented by an unusual two page written agreement outlining Gore’s role as a chief advisor to the president with weekly scheduled meetings and daily access as needed. Gore was given several important assignments including work on streamlining government and cutting waste and encouraging technological innovation including the use of robotics in industry and fostering the new information super highway—the emerging internet. He also became an expert on the environment and the administration’s point man on that internationally including being chief U.S. negotiator and then promoter of the Kyoto Accords. He also loyally stood by Clinton through the Monica Lewinski scandal.
It was always clear that Gore was the anointed successor to Clinton. In 2000 he easily swept aside a challenge from New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and sailed to the nomination after winning every primary. His Vice Presidential choice was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the first Jew on the national ticket of a major party, an ardent supporter of Israel, and a bridge to more conservative business and finance oriented Democrats.
He faced the Governor of Texas George W. Bush, the feckless and lazy son of the former president. The younger Bush had a hard time convincing red meat conservatives that he was not a secret liberal one-worlder like his father but eventually won over the religious right as a born again believer. He wooed foreign policy hard liners by relying on former Wyoming Congressman and his father’s Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney as his top advisor. When he had the nomination sewed up he appointed Cheney to lead a search for a Vice Presidential. Cheney reported back that after looking under every rock in America the very most excellent and only choice was….Dick Cheney! But first Cheney had to scramble to move back to Wyoming from Texas were he was a registered voter while serving as the CEO of the oil industry conglomerate Halliburton to comply with the Constitutional prohibition on the President and Vice President coming from the same state.
|The Darth Vader of American politics.|
It was a notoriously hard fought election and polled dead even in Electoral College projections down to the wire. On a long election night it all came down to slow reporting Florida where numerous problems and irregularities. Early in the morning the networks and wire services called Florida for Gore, only to walk that back. Next, Bush was reported to have a narrow lead. Problems with mysterious hanging chads on the ballot punch cards were reported in heavily Democratic areas. There were days and weeks of drama before the Supreme Court stopped an ongoing Florida recount and effectively anointed Bush president. Bush lost the popular vote to Gore but took the Electoral College 271 to 266.
Far from being cautious due to the narrow and questionable circumstances of his election, from day one Bush behaved like a President with an enormous popular mandate. He was all public swagger. He relied heavily on Cheney with whom he conferred daily and to whom he left many of the details of running the government while he reserved himself for “the big picture” and worked 4 hour days with afternoon naps. Cheney viewed himself as a kind of Grand Vizier to an indolent Sultan. After 9/11 Cheney, the hero of the neo-con movement, boldly pushed for and attack on Iraq and helped manufacture evidence of and hysteria over weapons of mass destruction.
Cheney’s seeming domination over the President continued well into the second term until Bush began to assert himself and ignored some of the Vice President’s advice. Their relationship began to cool and became more strained when Cheney didn’t think the President was being aggressive enough in the ongoing war. As President of the Senate he even signed on to a law suit against the Department of Justice over gun regulation in the District of Columbia. Still he retained influence on the President to the end.
His reputation as the Darth Vader of American politics however, made it politically impossible for him to seek the Presidency himself. Even his attempts to influence the 2008 Republican selection process against Arizona Senator John McCain were unsuccessful. He has spent much of his time since leaving office being a go-to voice for discredited aggressive neo-con policies and a reflexive critic of the Obama administration.
The election of 2008 shaped up as a referendum on unceasingly unpopular Bush presidency, Democrats were favored to take back the White House after already reclaiming majorities in the House and Senate two years earlier. After Al Gore a gaggle of candidates entered the race but conventional wisdom declared that the nomination was Hilary Clinton’s to lose. Minor candidates quickly went by the wayside or remained in the race only symbolically. Pretty boy Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and running mate of John Kerry in 2004 showed early strength running as a progressive populist but quickly faded.
The race narrowed down to a contest between Clinton and the very junior Senator from Illinois, Barak Obama who had rocketed to the national spot light on the basis of his memorable Key Note speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention. A long and sometimes bitter primary season see-sawed between the two leading candidates. But by early summer the charismatic Obama, buoyed by heavy registration of young and minority voters surged ahead to what looked like an insurmountable lead. But Clinton vowed to stay in the race to the convention and her supporters mocked calls for party unity (sound familiar?) After Obama became inevitable there was a noisy flurry of Clintonistas—mostly women—vowing never to support Obama in November no matter the consequences. But it turned out many of those stirring that pot were Republican plants and shills in a classic dirty tricks operation re-tooled for an era of bloggers. Most resentful Democratic women quickly got over it and showed up in droves to support Obama in November.
|Sarah Palin was more than outmatched by Joe Biden in the Vice Presidential debate.|
Obama’s Vice Presidential choice surprised many. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was a longtime Democratic fixture who had made an abortive run for the nomination way back in 1988 and was one of the tribe of contenders quickly eliminated twenty years later. Avuncular and folksy he strongly connected to White ethnic working class folks whose security even then was being threatened by an out-migration of jobs from older industrial communities. He had endured unimaginable loss when between his upset victory in his first Senate race and his swearing into office his young wife Neilia and one year old daughter Naomi were killed and young sons Beau and Hunter were injured in an automobile accident in 1972. A shaken Biden turned to his Catholic faith for support and became a dedicated single parent. To maintain a stable life for his sons with a network of family support, he kept his full time residence in the Wilmington suburbs and commuted each day to Washington via a 1 ½ hour Amtrak ride.
In 1977 Biden married teacher Jill Jacobs and began to build a new strong family as both pursued their careers. Jill went on to get a Ph.D. in education while teaching in high schools, a psychiatric hospital, and at the college level. In 1981 the Biden welcomed daughter Ashley. The unusual attention given here to the Vice Presidential candidates wife come because she quickly became the fourth member of a tightly bonded team with her husband, Barack and Michelle Obama. Their relationship on the campaign trail and continuing into office were even closer than that of the Clintons and Gore. Michelle and Dr. Jill, who became the first spouse of a President or Vice President to hold a paying job at an n adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), have worked closely together in high profile support of children’s literacy and in support of veterans.
On the other side, Arizona Senator John McCain, the former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam, finally secured the Republican nomination despite the opposition of the parties growing ultra-right who regarded his occasional departures from conservative orthodoxy as a self-described maverick made him a traitor. To shore up his shaky right wing and to appeal to those largely fictional feminists who would not support Obama shortly before the convention he made what looked like an impulsive, but dramatic choice of a running mate—Alaska Governor Sara Palin. She certainly roused the red-meat right but here bizarre pronouncements, fractured syntax, and seemingly willful ignorance quickly made her a national laughing stock. In the end McCain’s choice called into question the basic soundness of his judgement. The rock-steady Biden, by contrast, did much to boost his Black running mate with the white working class.
In office, Biden maintained a close relationship. As an experienced foreign policy expert he was included in all of the highest level national security discussions and was a close collaborator with the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama and Biden continued the recent tradition of regular meeting and easy access to the Oval Office. The President entrusted him with numerous special projects and commissions, the most recent being coordinator for a national push to cure cancer.
In 2012 Biden was once again an energetic and effective campaigner in the successful re-election campaign against Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, an architect of an unpopular government shutdown in a refusal to raise the debt limit. Despite predictions of a close race the Obama/Biden ticket won 332 Electoral College votes to Romney/Ryan’s 206 and had a 51–47 percent edge in the nationwide popular vote.
Biden was often mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, especially if Hillary Clinton, who delayed tipping her hand well into 2015, decided not to run. When his son Beau, then serving as Delaware Attorney General, was on his deathbed with cancer, he appealed to his father to run, and emotional Biden would later reveal. In the end he declined to run and spoke kindly of both Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But some Party leaders who became nervous that Clinton would falter or even be indicted in the e-mail server scandal, considered Biden a possible fall back to keep the nomination falling to Sanders. He apparently did nothing to encourage the idea.
All of which brings us around to 2016 and where we started way back yesterday. Hope you have enjoyed the ride.