A Heartbeat Away

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A few months ago, President Lyndon Johnson was showing Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada the handsome chandelier which, thanks to Mrs. Kennedy, again hangs in the Treaty Room of the White House. He explained where it had been in the meantime: ”… when President Theodore Roosevelt would have to open the windows in the evening to let the breeze in to keep cool … the chandelier would tinkle and keep him awake. So he told the butler one evening to get the chandelier out of here and take it down to the Capitol. The frustrated butler said, ‘Where do we take it?’ He said, ‘Take it to the Vice President, he needs something to keep him awake.’ ”

The story is the newest repetition of the legend that the Vice President is generally a Throttlebottom who “sits around in the parks and feeds the pigeons, and takes walks and goes to the movies.” This classic formulation of the Vice President’s role broke into the national consciousness in 1931 in the glittering musical comedy Of Thee I Sing . But the idea had long smouldered close to the surface—possibly from the day John Adams, the first man to hold the office, lamented that he had not “the smallest degree of power to do any good either in the executive, legislative, judicial departments. A mere Doge of Venice … a mere mechanical tool to wind up the clock.” It did not help either John Adams or the reputation of the office that in trying out various titles for the principal officials of the new government, Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania had mischievously dubbed Adams “His Rotundity.” Yet the Vice President, as Adams saw quickly, was invested with “two separate powers—the one in esse and the other in posse .” In esse he was nothingAdams once complained that he was forbidden to speak in the Senate, over which he presided, even on subjects he could throw light upon. But in posse he could be everything. And the potential of going in a trice from nothing to everything has constituted fundamentally the fascination of the office.

From the outset the nature of the Vice Presidency was blurry. At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who was himself destined to hold the office under James Madison, saw no need for having a Vice President at all, especially since his sole duty would be to preside over the Senate. Gerry insisted that “the close intimacy that must subsist between the President and Vice President makes [such a duty] absolutely improper.”

Whether jealous or not, the Vice President inevitably would nourish an appetite for the substance of power not vouchsafed to him in the Constitution. And for strong men—and their wives—the feeling of inferiority could be keen. Adams’ beloved Abigail offered him no uncertain advice when it was thought he would be Jefferson’s runner-up: “Resign, retire. I would be second … to no man but Washington.” Nevertheless, for patient men, confident that their turn at the helm would come in due time, there could be contentment and grace in accepting a role of insignificance. As it turned out, it was Jefferson who became Adams’ Vice President, and as the Virginian set out for Philadelphia early in 1797 to assume the Second Office, he wrote to his lifelong friend, James Madison, “I shall escape into the city as covertly as possible. If Governor Mifflin [Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania] should show any symptoms of ceremony, pray contrive to parry them.” The same sensitivity, however, was soon forcing Jefferson to complain that no one was consulting with him “as to any measures of the government”—despite Adams’ opinion of him as “the first prince of the country, and the heir apparent to the sovereign authority.”

The conception of the Vice President as the assured “next-in-line” ended with Aaron Burr. Burr had tied with Jefferson in the Electoral College balloting for the Presidency in 1801 and would not accept without a fight the second place—for which, it was understood, the votes for him had been cast. The House of Representatives, now called upon to choose a President, named Jefferson. Burr thereupon became Vice President, for the original Constitution had provided that “after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.” To his credit Burr performed his official functions with éclat. “One of the best officers that ever presided over a deliberative assembly,” one senator called him. But Burr’s failure to yield willingly to Jefferson, his strange connivance with the Federalists in 1801 and 1804, and his dastardly role as Hamilton’s slayer, all combined to make him political poison for Jefferson the second time around. After Burr delivered his farewell address to the Senate on March 2, 1805, it was reported, “he descended from his chair, and in a dignified manner walked to the door, which resounded as he with some force shut it after him. … There was a solemn and silent weeping for perhaps five minutes.”

The slammed door and the spontaneous shedding of tears, though real, were also symbolic: an era in the brief history of the Vice Presidency had come to a close and what followed was a cause for sorrow. Late in 1804, the Twelfth Amendment had been added to the Constitution, making it necessary thenceforth for the presidential electors to mark their ballots to show separately their choices for President and Vice President. Never again would there be a disgrace like the electoral contest of 1800–1801. But a new kind of degradation was now possible: the Vice Presidency could be used as an inglorious prop to “shore up” a national ticket.