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The Abominable No. 2 Man
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Burr’s silence made it look as if he had, in fact, conspired with the opposition party to try to steal the election from Jefferson and give it to himself—which did nothing at all to mitigate Jefferson’s disgust with him. Burr’s own version of the matter was that his continued presence as an alternative bought time for maneuver and kept the Federalists from usurping the Presidency by choosing one of their own party members. Not surprisingly, fellow Republicans did not believe him, and when 1804 came around, they named someone else as Jefferson’s second-term running mate. Burr became the first “dumped” Vice President.
The episode had convinced the country that the original way of choosing the Vice President was now dangerous and unworkable. The Twelfth Amendment was passed by Congress in December 1803 and ratified in less than seven months. Now the electors must specify whom they want to hold the “insignificant” office. That led inexorably to the practice of passing it off to men of modest ambitions and usually of modest achievements whose contribution was to balance the ticket.
Only two dominating political figures became Vice Presidents in the nineteenth century. John C. Calhoun served under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren succeeded him in Jackson’s second term. Both got the job when normal practices didn’t apply because the party system was in abnormal turmoil and renewal. Calhoun quit the job to become a senator. Van Buren finished his vice-presidential term and was afterward elected to the Presidency. That particular feat was not duplicated until Richard Nixon and George Bush did it, which indicated how things are currently changing.
But with these exceptions Vice Presidents whom the lightning of sudden succession didn’t strike were usually the subjects of jokes. The joshing was usually good-natured, and I seem to recall that the likable thirty-fifth Vice President, Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, was the first to be called by the affectionate name of “the Veep.”
The recent evolution of the Vice Presidency has been confusing. It has been made into a much more visible and less innocuous office.
No one would think of dumping a Veep. But the very next Vice President, Nixon, was a different case altogether. He faced not one but two attempts to get him off the ticket he shared with Elsenhower. In 1952 the story broke that a group of California businessmen had raised a private “kitty” to support Nixon’s political activities. With important Republican newspapers calling for his resignation, Nixon was put out on the griddle to defend himself—which he did in a television speech that blew his attackers out of the water. Not a penny of the presumed secret slush fund had gone to his personal use, he said. He painted a heart-tugging picture of the modest, wholesome life that he led with his wife, his little girls, and their pet cocker spaniel, Checkers—a gift, indeed, which he would not dream of returning. Republican headquarters were flooded with messages of support, and Eisenhower publicly hugged Nixon as he exclaimed, “Dick, you’re my boy.”
But three years later, when Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, misgivings again arose against Nixon. Nevertheless, his amazing capacity to survive potential disasters saw him safely through the 1956 campaign.
The recent evolution of the Vice Presidency has been somewhat confusing. It has been made into a much more visible and less innocuous post in which potential Presidents are put on display. Three of the last six holders became their party’s nominees for the White House. On the other hand, one resigned to escape prosecution.
And then there is the Twenty-fifth Amendment. In force since 1967, it lets the President name a new Vice President in case the office falls vacant, with confirmation by a simple majority of both houses of Congress. If the job is so important, why shouldn’t it require at least the two-thirds vote that a nominee for the cabinet or an ambassadorship needs from the Senate? And why shouldn’t there be some popular ratification of the person who stands a heartbeat away?
This inclines me to sympathize with Gouverneur Morris, who came around to thinking it “might be better to abolish the office.” There is no reason why, in the event of presidential death or disability, an acting President could not be named to serve for sixty or ninety days while a new election was held. A short campaign would be a very good thing in itself—but that’s another story. In any case, I offer as my bipartisan alternative to ditching a particular Vice President the idea of setting out the plank for all of them to walk.