US Vice Presidents

Traditionally regarded with near contempt, the office of Vice President was created almost by accident. The importance of the ‘Veep’ has grown considerably since. 

Poster for the Lincoln and Johnson ticket by Currier and Ives, 1864.
Poster for the Lincoln and Johnson ticket by Currier and Ives, 1864.

The founding fathers who wrote the United States Constitution created the office of Vice President almost by accident. They established an elaborate mechanism for electing the President: each state would choose members of the electoral college who were mandated to vote for the candidate who had received most votes in their state. Concerned that loyalty to an individual state was stronger than to the new federation, the authors of the constitution feared that individual electors might be inclined to choose a leader from their own state. So they created the office of Vice President and required that electors vote for two candidates, ‘of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves’. Electors therefore had to look outside their own state for at least one of their choices and consider a candidate with some national standing.

Originally, the candidate receiving the most electoral college votes would be President, the runner-up Vice President, a bizarre arrangement to modern eyes, as it was highly likely to lead to bitter political opponents having to work together at the head of the Executive branch – imagine George W Bush with Al Gore or John Kerry as his Vice President, or Kennedy with Nixon as his deputy in 1961. Predictably enough, the system soon broke down: in 1800, the fourth presidential election, two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, each received 73 electoral college votes. Asked to decide between them, the House of Representatives was evenly divided, but after 35 inconclusive votes, the House did overcome this impasse by choosing Jefferson as President, which meant that Burr became Vice President. After this embarrassing shambles, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was proposed, which required electors to cast separate ballots for President and Vice President. In 1804, this was ratified and the modern pattern was established of a ‘ticket’ with candidates for President and Vice President running together.

Stepping-stone to Oblivion

So what is the purpose of the office of Vice President? It has traditionally been regarded almost with contempt, even (perhaps especially) by those who occupy it. No article about the Vice Presidency would be complete without a reference to John Nance Garner’s description of the office. Vice President under President Franklin D Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941, Garner reportedly described the office as ‘not worth a pitcher of warm spit’, although some say this version is lightly sanitised and the final word of the quotation was even less savoury. Whatever his choice of vocabulary, his meaning was clear enough: Garner was lamenting his powerlessness. A generation earlier, on taking office as Vice President in 1901, FDR’s distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt expressed his fear that the office would prove to be ‘a stepping-stone to oblivion’.

Yet, looking at the previous experience of some Vice Presidents, it is hard to believe that such successful politicians would have agreed to step into the role if it were devoid of power and importance. Garner himself had been Speaker of the House of Representatives. His successors as Vice President included Senate Majority Leaders Alben Barkley and Lyndon Johnson, Senators Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore, and hugely experienced Washington insiders George HW Bush and Dick Cheney. Why should such men agree to become political eunuchs?

Part of the answer is to serve their party, in the knowledge that their name on the ticket might help the party’s presidential candidate to win. The convention that party leaders rather than presidential candidates chose the running-mate resulted in some less-than-successful pairings. For example, Herbert Hoover, President from 1929 to 1933, protested vociferously, though to no avail, against the Republican Party’s choice as his runningmate, Senate Majority Leader Charles Curtis. The two were barely on speaking terms for much of Hoover’s presidency.

Since 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt established a precedent by choosing his own running-mate, the choice has been down to the candidate. Some presidential nominees have tried to increase the chances of winning by choosing someone who could compensate for weaknesses in their own electoral appeal. Choosing someone with contrasting or complementary qualities or background, whether it is their home state, the political wing of the party they represent or their age and experience, is an obvious means of balancing the ticket. In 1864, the National Union Party Convention chose Andrew Johnson, a northern Democrat, as Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s running-mate in an effort to preserve unity on the Union side at a crucial stage in the Civil War and prevent defections to the Democrat-dominated Confederacy.

The Second Stage of a Rocket

140 years later, a wealthy Massachusetts liberal, Senator John Kerry, chose Senator John Edwards from North Carolina, the son of a mill-worker, with useful connections to the trade union movement, in order to broaden the ticket’s appeal amongst working-class voters and in the South. Similarly, but with more success, in 1960 another Senator from Massachusetts, John F Kennedy, chose Senator Lyndon B Johnson from Texas, partly to achieve regional balance.

Another benefit of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was that it eased any doubts voters might have had about JFK’s relative youth, with the reassurance of LBJ’s substantial experience as Senate majority leader. The same considerations could be seen at work in 2008. Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama’s greatest potential electoral weakness, after only four years in the Senate, was his limited experience, especially in foreign policy. He countered this by choosing Joe Biden, a 65-year-old veteran Senator, with many years of experience on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

What the vice presidential candidate can bring to the ticket in electoral terms is clearly important and some commentators have argued that that is as far as his usefulness goes. Once the election is won, the argument goes, the Vice President has nothing further to offer and is relegated to fund-raising and representing the President on routine foreign trips. As an aide to Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, graphically put it, ‘Once the election is over, the Vice President’s usefulness is over. He’s like the second stage of a rocket. He’s damn important going into orbit, but he’s always thrown off to burn up in the atmosphere.’

A Lot of International Travelling

To what extent was Humphrey correct? Once the election is won, does the Vice Presidency become just Garner’s pitcher of warm spit? It is time to look at what Vice Presidents actually do once in office. Dan Quayle, the lexicographically-challenged Vice President to President George HW Bush from 1989 to 1993, visited 47 countries on Bush’s behalf. When he dropped in on Dick Cheney in January 2001 to give the incoming Vice President a few tips, he told him, ‘Dick, you know, you’re going to be doing a lot of this international travelling, you’re going to be doing all this political fund-raising. I mean, this is what vice presidents do.’

This all sounds pretty insignificant, but there is one important duty which nine of the 46 Vice Presidents have found themselves called upon to do, mostly at very short notice. Fortunately for all concerned, Dan Quayle was not one of them. I refer of course to those who have succeeded to the presidency after the death or resignation of the incumbent, starting with John Tyler who became President on 6th April 1841, when William Harrison died a month after taking office, supposedly of a chill caught at his inauguration. He did not prove to be a great President, nor did three other 19th-century Vice Presidents who were called upon to fill others’ shoes: Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur. Johnson was doomed to live in the shadow of one of the greatest presidents, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, and was fortunate to escape impeachment in 1868 by the slimmest of margins.

Proving that a Vice President could become a successful President, however, was Theodore Roosevelt. Only a few months after taking what he thought was his ‘stepping-stone to oblivion’, he was sworn in as President on 14th September 1901, after President William McKinley had been shot dead. A little over three years later, he became the first Vice President who had succeeded to the presidency on the death of an incumbent to be elected President in his own right. Since then, each of the three men who have succeeded on their predecessor’s death in office went on to win an election: Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Of the five 20th-century Vice Presidents who became President through the demise of the incumbent, only Gerald Ford, whose elevation to the presidency in 1974 was uniquely brought about by a White House resignation rather than a death (that of the disgraced Richard Nixon), failed to secure re-election.

Standby Equipment

Whilst replacing a dead or disgraced President is clearly a vitally important role of the vice presidency, by definition it only comes into play when the office-holder ceases to be Vice President. Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President in 1973-74, self-deprecatingly described his role as ‘standby equipment’, implying that until a President died or was impeached, his deputy had no more to do than a spare tyre in a car. More recently, Barton Gellman of the Washington Post summed up the traditional view of the Vice President’s role like this, ‘A vice president breaks tie Senate votes and tries to keep on breathing in case the president happens to stop.’

Fear that the latter scenario might become reality, however, can influence voters in presidential elections. Press coverage in 2008 suggested that one of the reasons for Senator John McCain’s defeat in the presidential election was the disturbing thought that his running-mate, the inexperienced, gaffe-prone and widely reviled Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, would be just a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.

So is the role of the Vice President merely to boost the presidential candidate’s prospects of election, then to stand by in case the president dies? In some cases, yes, but, to quote an Ira Gershwin song, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. A wise presidential candidate looks beyond the electoral appeal of his running-mate to what qualities he can offer to the administration as Vice President. As Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter was an outsider who had swept to victory in 1976 against President Gerald Ford, amidst widespread disillusionment with Washington politics after the long-drawn-out Watergate affair and Richard Nixon’s humiliation in 1974. He proved to be the first in a long line of former state governors whose electoral appeal lay in their being untainted with Washington politics. Such men occupied the presidency from 1977 to 2009 (with the exception only of 1989-93) and each wisely chose as his running-mate someone with years of experience of politics inside the Beltway.

Carter knew that, whilst on election day being seen as a breath of fresh air from a distant state was an advantage, once in office he would need at his side someone who had a thorough knowledge and experience of how Washington worked. His choice was Walter Mondale, who had been Senator for Minnesota for 12 years. Four years later, the man who defeated Carter, former Governor of California Ronald Reagan, chose his own running-mate for striking similar reasons. A consummate Washington insider, George HW Bush had long experience as a Congressman, as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, as US Ambassador to the UN and to China, and latterly as Director of the CIA.

After Reagan had served his two terms as President, Bush succeeded him, but proved to be a one-term president and merely a brief interruption in the long line of outsider presidents. The man Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas chose as his Vice President could hardly have been more of a Washington man. Al Gore Jr had been born in DC, the son of a member of the House of Representatives who was later to serve 18 years as Senator for Tennessee. The younger Gore had followed in his father’s footsteps, representing the same state in both Houses of Congress. The choice failed to give the ticket diversity of age, ideology or region – Gore was only two years younger than Clinton, a centre-left moderate and from a neighbouring state. The ticket nevertheless followed the traditional outsider-insider pattern.

A Good Fit

Clinton’s successor, Governor of Texas George W Bush, similarly gave his reasons for choosing Dick Cheney as his runningmate: ‘It became apparent to me that Cheney was the kind of guy that would be a good fit for a two-term governor from Texas who … didn’t have a lot of what they call “Washington experience”.’ Cheney had it in spades. His Washington career had begun in 1968, when, aged 27, he had gone to work as an intern for a Republican Senator. He had rapidly risen to become Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford, then a Congressman for eight years in the 1980s and finally Secretary of Defense under President GHW Bush. He also had a long-standing commitment to increasing the power of the executive branch at the expense of Congress. As Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times puts it, ‘the chief architect of the Bush administration’s expansive view of executive power was Vice President Dick Cheney, whose interest in pumping up the presidency dates to the mid-1970s’. It is easy to see why a President with no Washington experience would find it useful to have such a man by his side.

Few would dispute that there has been a growth in the importance of the office of Vice President, beginning in the 1930s and reflecting the massive increase in the size and influence of the federal government in general from the New Deal era onwards. This trend continued during the 1960s. At the end of Richard Nixon’s vice presidency in 1961, his office had fewer than 20 employees; by the time of the same man’s presidency a decade later, not only had the size of his vice president’s office increased to 60, with the addition of more support staff and policy advisers, but it had also moved to a spacious suite of offices in the Executive Office Building.

Lyndon Johnson is often portrayed as playing only a minor role in the Kennedy administration. Yet he could exert influence over Kennedy’s decisions. In March 1961, Kennedy, unconvinced of the value of manned space travel, withheld funding from the Apollo programme. Johnson sent the President a memo dissenting from this view and arguing that ‘dramatic accomplishments in space are being increasingly identified as a major indication of world leadership’. Two months later, in one of his most famous speeches, Kennedy pledged the USA ‘to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon’. Why was Johnson so keen on the manned space programme? NASA’s headquarters were in Houston in his home state of Texas and stood to be the recipient of much of the massive investment necessary to achieve Kennedy’s pledge.

That said, in the 1960s there remained clear limits which constrained the Vice President’s influence on the legislature. When Johnson attempted to attend a meeting of his party’s Senators, he was prevented from doing so. Senator Mike Mansfield, the Democratic Majority Leader, said that the Vice President’s request to attend the meeting was an affront to the autonomy of the Senate and ensured that a majority of Democratic Senators voted to exclude him.

A Different Understanding

Joel K Goldstein, in The Modern American Vice Presidency, argues that the growth in the importance of the office began with Walter Mondale, Vice President from 1977 to 1981, who said his role was ‘to help the president on big issues and stay up to speed to be of help when needed’. Mondale expanded the vice president’s role as presidential adviser, establishing the tradition of weekly lunches with the president. Subsequent vice presidents have continued to be active participants in their administrations, often being given specific responsibility for an area of policy. For example, Bill Clinton gave Al Gore a brief to cover the administration’s environmental policy.

When in 2001 Dan Quayle offered his description of his duties as Vice President as predominantly fundraising and foreign trips, Dick Cheney is said to have quietly replied, ‘I have a different understanding with the president’. So powerful did Cheney become that the administration was often referred to as the Bush-Cheney presidency. Cheney played a key part in a strategy to suppress congressional dissent, according to Republican Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont: ‘This administration set out to make the Republican Party on the Hill an arm of the White House.’ From his first day as Vice President, Cheney took it as his right to attend meetings of Republican senators and, unlike Johnson’s experience 40 years earlier, this was not challenged. According to Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times, ‘You could set your watch by the arrival of Vice President Cheney’s motorcade on Capitol Hill for the Republican caucus’s weekly strategy sessions.’

Cheney, with the approval of the President, was also able to participate in other forums closed to previous Vice Presidents. ‘The president made it clear from the outset,’ according to Joshua Bolten, Chief of Staff to President Bush, ‘that the vice president is welcome at every table and at every meeting.’ Cheney certainly took advantage of this. He insisted, for example, on attending almost all meetings of the executive branch’s main foreign policy forum, the Principals Committee, which no previous Vice President had done regularly since the committee’s creation in 1947.

Bush’s decision to put Cheney in charge of making appointments to the presidential staff put him in a very powerful position from the start. Although Cheney was careful to get Bush’s approval for all the appointments, they were Cheney’s choices. Particularly important were second-ranking posts, for many of which he chose old allies and protégés, like Sean O’Keefe, who became Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser, and Paul Hoffman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, Chief of Staff at the State Department from 2002 to 2005, ‘His network is positioned almost everywhere in the government that’s important. It was marvelous to watch his network work.’

Fourth Branch of Government

As Cheney neared the end of his term, John M. Broder of the New York Times summed up his effect on the office of Vice President like this: ‘Dick Cheney has transformed it into a veritable fourth branch of government … His authority at times seemed to eclipse that of President Bush.’ Wilkerson’s verdict was that Cheney was ‘the most powerful vice president in the history of our country’. Critics like Charlie Savage and Barton Gellman argue that Cheney’s accumulation of power amounted to a subversion of democracy.

Yet this enhancement in the role of Vice President has not outlasted Cheney. When asked at the Vice Presidential Debate on 2nd October 2008, how he saw the office, Joe Biden replied that he would act as a senior minister without portfolio and would have a role to play in liaison with Congress. Barack Obama, a much more hands-on President than his predecessor, had no intention of handing over to his Vice President the wide-ranging power exercised by Cheney. Yet he has certainly made frequent use of Biden’s experience. ‘The best thing about Joe,’ Obama has said, ‘is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me. I also know, when he gives me his advice, he gives it to me straight’. Biden’s contacts in the Senate have also come in useful to the administration, for example when he talked Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter into becoming a Democrat, and when he persuaded Republican Senator for Maine, Susan Collins, to vote for Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package in 2009.

So, whilst it is undoubtedly true that the office has increased in power and importance over the past 80 years, it seems that a President determines the sort of Vice President he has – a copresident power-behind-the-throne like Dick Cheney; an experienced adviser like Walter Mondale or Joe Biden; or someone on whom to offload tedious foreign trips, like Dan Quayle. He may not have been the greatest intellect ever to have occupied the number two spot in the executive branch, but Quayle summed it up superbly when he said this: ‘The role of the Vice President is what the President wants.’

Mark Rathbone is Head of History at Canford School, Wimborne, Dorset, a Fellow of the Historical Association, and a prolific writer of articles on British and American History and Politics.