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The Abominable No. 2 Man
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
It’s vice-presidential agony time again. President Bush’s heart went into arrhythmia, and the media immediately went into fibrillations of their own, with headline and top-of-the-hour stories on Dan Quayle and other 1992 vice-presidential “hopefuls” on every front page, cover, and channel. When a President’s health falters, we all get a grim reminder of the mortal reason for the Vice President’s being there. Forty men have held the office of President. Nine of them were Vice Presidents who, in every case but one, took over from suddenly dead predecessors. Those are scary odds.
Some people are especially scared of this particular Vice President—about 62 percent of respondents in one early-May poll. They reported themselves as “worried” if Quayle had to fill Bush’s shoes. As a result there is a “dump Dan” movement simmering in advance of the 1992 election.
It’s unlikely to come to a boil if the record is any guide. Twelve Presidents have been elected twice consecutively. Six of them, it is true, had different Vice Presidents on the ticket the second time around, but they were all in the nineteenth century. The four twicechosen Presidents in this century (Wilson, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan) ran with the same vice-presidential candidate both times. Franklin Roosevelt, the great exception, also had the same vice-presidential candidate his first two times on the ballot, though different ones for his unique third and fourth runs.
But those took place many years ago. The chances do seem smaller today that a sitting Vice President, at renomination time, can be quietly made to disappear. No more than the inherent problem of the Vice Presidency itself can be wished away. It’s been a vexatious position from the start.
The trouble began with the original constitutional method of choosing the Vice President. Presidential electors in the states were to cast ballots for two persons, and when the tallies were in, the one with the most votes would become President, and the runner-up Vice President. It seemed a good way of getting the second most able or popular figure in the country as a backup President in case of a tragic accident to the first.
Unfortunately it also condemned the poor soul to frustrating inaction, since no duties went with the job except presiding over the Senate. John Adams, the first VP, referred unhappily to the job as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” (John N. Garner, the thirtysecond, said more bluntly that it was “hardly worth a pitcher of warm spit.”)
A second difficulty became apparent immediately after Washington retired. Political parties had by then come into existence. The second President was John Adams, now a Federalist, and the runner-up and new Vice President was his beaten archrival, Thomas Jefferson, founder of our first Republican party. (The current one is the second.) That very awkward situation helped produce a full-blown crisis in 1801, when Aaron Burr became the third standby President. He was such a stormy figure and the circumstances were so bizarre that the Constitution was amended to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
Burr’s name can still start fights among historians. He went through a long, tempestuous career under constant suspicion of being an unprincipled, self-promoting intriguer, although the evidence against him always left enough doubt for supporters to claim that he was unfairly judged (somewhat like the thirty-sixth Vice President, Richard Nixon, of whom more anon).
In 1800 Burr had become an important Republican figure in New York, and he sought and won the endorsement of the party’s leaders for Vice President under Jefferson. But to bring it off under the old rules was tricky. For Jefferson to win a majority in the Electoral College, some of his electors would have to throw their alternate vote to anyone other than Burr. The danger was that if too many did so and the race was close, Burr could wind up third, behind the Federalist candidate. So every one of the seventy-three Republicans played it safe and voted for both men. Jefferson and Burr were now in a flat tie that it was then up to the House of Representatives to break.
Burr had written to a friend that in such a case “every man who knows me ought to know that I should utterly disclaim all competition [with Jefferson].” The Federalists, he went on, would “dishonour my views and insult my feelings by harbouring a suspicion that I could submit to be instrumental in counteracting the wishes and expectations of the U.S.”
But in fact he did anything but disclaim competition. On the contrary, he stayed in the race for thirty-six ballots and allowed the Federalists in the House, whose votes were needed for a majority, to “insult” him pretty freely by considering whether to vote for him for President instead of for Jefferson, whom they feared and detested. In the end they didn’t because of the influence of Alexander Hamilton, who loathed Burr even more than he did Jefferson and called him (in private correspondence) unprincipled, corrupt, coldblooded, and a conspirator.