- Historic Sites
A Heartbeat Away
… each awoke next morning knowing that the Presidency was only
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
No brief evaluation of the accidental Presidents can do them or the general theme of the Vice Presidency full justice. History plays tricks within tricks. Truman confronted problems which could not be postponed; Arthur and Coolidge confronted few that could not wait. Andrew Johnson faced a rampant Congress bent on destroying him; Tyler faced a Cabinet scornfully determined to dominate him. Fillmore arrived on the scene to deal with a nation tearing itself apart at the sectional seams; Theodore Roosevelt had the advantage of leading a united nation recently cured of the heresy of “free silver” and triumphant in its crusade for a “free Cuba.”
Comparing one Vice President-become-President with another is, therefore, unhistorical if not futile. None of them failed abysmally arid left the Executive branch weakened or dishonored. None of them suffers by comparison with any btit a mere handful of the men elected to the White House in their own right. It is commonplace to say that only Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, neither of whom had been Vice President, brought disgrace to the Presidency. We are agreed that Harding’s running mate, Coolidge, performed passably; we may guess that Henry Wilson, “the Natick cobbler,” who was Vice President during Grant’s second term, would have exceeded his chief in sophistication and wisdom in public affairs.
This opens the door on the fascinating question raised by each of the administrations in which the President survived his term: How would the Vice President have performed had fate called him to be the Chief? The question is a fair one, though inevitably playful. Power changes men, causing some to grow and some to shrink. No litmus test seems capable of distinguishing between the two types in advance. Who would have guessed that Van Buren, a capable Vice President, would seem so ordinary when he reached the White House? By the same token, who does not believe that George Mifflin Dallas, the scholarly, cultivated, well-travelled Pennsylvanian who served as Vice President under James K. Polk, did not surpass his chief in natural ability and qualifications for the higher office?
To those who enjoy the irresponsibility of “iffy” history, as Franklin Roosevelt liked to call it, there is always the question of whether the Secretaries of State, who until recent years stood behind the Vice Presidents in the line of succession, would have been potentially better gambles for the Presidency. The answer is not plain, because the list of Secretaries abounds in the names of would-be Presidents who never made it, beginning with Henry Clay and running through John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, James G. Blaine, William Jennings Bryan, and Charles Evans Hughes. It is far from certain that men like these would have made better Chief Executives than less well-known men who filled the Vice Presidency. The Secretaryship was in these cases, as well as in others, a politician’s “consolation prize.” In recent years the mention of Thomas E. Dewey and Adlai Stevenson for the post tells us that this conception of the office is not dead. The Vice Presidency, on the other hand, has been filled since Jackson’s day by a man named in the heat of a convention. Who, then, is a better risk for the White House, the wounded survivor of electoral battle or the stranger who comes out of the grab bag of politics? There is no rule because there are no rules for the training of Presidents.
Nevertheless, incurable optimists are not the only ones who press the case for more vigorous preselection procedures for vice-presidential nominees. And confirmed pessimists are not the only ones who give thought to the closely related question of presidential disability. As Harry Truman wrote in 1957, “the job of President is getting to be an almost unendurable mental and physical burden, and we ought not to be trusting to luck to see us through.”
A close student of American history, Truman could have been thinking of the long summer of 1881 when Garfield hovered between life and death; or of the terrible year from 1919 to 1920 when Woodrow Wilson lay paralyzed and incommunicado as the result of a stroke; or of the three instances in the Eisenhower administration when the President was seriously ill. These examples and others (Madison was gravely sick in 1813, and in 1893 Grover Cleveland was operated on for a cancer of the mouth) suggest a need to reexamine the kinds of choices made for the Vice Presidency and to scrutinize also the relationship between” the President and the Vice President in the event of presidential incapacity.
After Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, he and Vice President Nixon arrived at an informal arrangement under which Nixon would, if necessary, have taken over the duties of the Presidency while Eisenhower was incapacitated.∗ Kennedy and Johnson—and later Johnson and Speaker McCormack—made similar agreements. But it is not sufficient to rely on such informal arrangements. Too many things can go wrong. One recalls with a shudder that when Chester Arthur arrived to meet with Garfield’s Cabinet on the day after the President was struck down, “no one [in the words of Arthur’s biographer] moved to greet him; for a moment all stared in silent hostility.” And everywhere there was handwringing over what seemed like an irremediable mistake made at the Republican convention at Chicago the previous summer in putting Arthur on the ticket. T. R., on the other hand, quickly gave his name to his era and seemed to confirm the wisdom of relying on luck in choosing Vice Presidents.