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The Abominable No. 2 Man

June 2024
5min read

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.

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.

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