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A Heartbeat Away
… each awoke next morning knowing that the Presidency was only
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
Almost immediately, George Clinton of New York became the first Throttlebottom, selected because he came from an important northern state and was a spokesman for whatever still remained of Antifederalist sentiment. A perennial candidate for either the Presidency or Vice Presidency since 1788, Clinton became in 1805 the second of Jefferson’s Vice Presidents. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire spoke warmly of Clinton’s personal charm and dignity, even writing, “He appears honest.” But Plumer had other words, too: “He is old, feeble & altogether uncapable of the duty of presiding in the Senate. He has no mind —no intellect—no memory—He forgets the questionmistakes it—8c not infrequently declares a vote before it’s taken—& often forgets to do it after it is taken— Takes up new business while a question is depending.” Though at the edge of senility, Clinton, after a powerful effort to win the Presidency, was re-elected Vice President on the ticket headed by James Madison in 1808. The qualities that had made him a good “balance” on the Jefferson ticket made him a perfect complement to the Father of the Constitution, as well.
This pairing of the attributes of President and Vice President, begun so long ago, became more marked as the public increasingly participated in presidential politics. Sometimes it seemed merely the matching of personal qualities. For instance, Martin Van Buren’s running mate in 1836 was Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky. Whereas Van Buren enjoyed a reputation as a sophisticated, perfumed dandy, Johnson liked to boast: “I was born in a cane-brake and cradled in a sap trough.” And when the Republicans gave Calvin Coolidge a nomination in his own right in 1924, they chose as his ticket-mate Charles “Hell and Maria” Dawes—in part because his vigor and loquaciousness contrasted with the President’s taciturnity. (Dawes’ eloquent and profane testimony before the House Committee on War Expenditures had become a best seller at the Government Printing Office.)
Sometimes the pairing seemed to be based only on single issues. In 1876 when the Democrats chose Samuel J. Tilden of New York, a sound-money man, they quickly “neutralized” him by designating for the second place Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana, a wellknown inflationist. When William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska was nominated in 1896 on a free-silver ticket that appeared to smack of the stuff of revolution, the curse was diluted by selecting for the Vice Presidency Arthur Sewall of Maine, a bank president.
Age and geographical origins have been other factors that ticket makers down through the years have sought to balance. In 1952, Richard Nixon’s youthfulness was an important factor in his being selected to stand alongside General Eisenhower, the oldest majorparty nominee in over a century. And was Lyndon Johnson not being an “opposite” to John F. Kennedy when he confessed to a cheering Boston audience in 1960 that their reception of him had made “this grandson of a ‘federate soldier feel lahk mah-ty tall cotton, let me tell you”?
Under circumstances of recruitment like these, the office became atrophied. For from the time the Twelfth Amendment went into effect, a Vice President could not escape a keen awareness that he was the dark star paired inseparably with the luminous one and held in orbit by it. Only a political or national cataclysm would bring him to light. By the i92o’s, Vice President Dawes was telling Senator Alben W. Barkley (who would learn the truth of Dawes’ words at first hand): “Barkley, this is a helluva job! I can do only two things: one is to sit up here and listen to you birds talk, without the privilege of being able to answer you back. The other is to look at the newspapers every morning to see how the President’s health is!” How far thoughts like these entered or obsessed the minds of Vice Presidents in an earlier, more reticent day we cannot know, of course. In some, unquestionably, the glimpse of power aroused no higher aspirations. Daniel D. Tompkins, for example, the accomplished governor of New York who was Vice President in James Monroe’s administration, was greatly troubled by personal financial problems and was scarcely ever in Washington during his term.
Tompkins’ successor, John C. Calhoun, was of a vastly different stamp. Veritably, he held court from his second place, and bided his time. The acidulous John Randolph of Roanoke, in a moment of pique, once addressed Calhoun as “Mr. Vice President, and would-be Mr. President of the United States.” When Calhoun was asked what his plans would be upon completing his term as Vice President, he promised he would “retire and write my memoirs.” But, alas, when his service under John Quincy Adams ended, he again accepted the Vice Presidency, this time under Andrew Jackson. Among other factors that induced him to do so, it was rumored, was the assurance from Jackson’s managers that their man, being old and sick, would soon leave the scene for good!
No doubt the urge to seek the office for possible future dividends was also irresistible to others, among them Martin Van Buren, whose own career had been tightly intertwined with Calhoun’s. When Calhoun and Jackson fell out, Van Buren, whose fortunes had already been rising, was now undisputed heir apparent. He claims in his autobiography that he looked forward to reaching the Presidency but never extended himself for it “by any other means than by the faithful performance of my official duties”—a statement subject to interpretation.