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A Heartbeat Away

May 2024
22min read

The lure of the Vice Presidency does not seem diminished, even for those who initially set their sights higher.

vice president
Vice President Alben Barkley explains the 1948 version of the Vice President's seal to Prime Minister Ali Khan of Pakistan and his wife. Truman Library

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 nothing. Adams 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.”

From the outset the nature of the Vice Presidency was blurry.

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.

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 question, mistakes it— 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 major party 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”?

Age and geographical origins have been other factors that ticket makers down through the years have sought to balance.

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 1920'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.

It is a remarkable accident of our history that it took so long for the first death of a President in office to occur. That sad moment came in 1841, when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia only a month after his inauguration. The event severely tested our constitutional system, for coming as it did after the death of the last surviving framer (Madison had died in 1836), no one could say with authority what the men of Philadelphia had specifically intended for that eventuality. The Constitution provided: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President. …” But a nice question had never been answered: is the Vice President automatically the President when his chief dies, or is he only the Acting President?

There is some evidence that John Tyler had already given thought to the question—as some of his predecessors probably had. At any rate, when it came he met it head on. He took the oath of office as President, clearly indicating he believed that the vice-presidential oath he had taken the previous month was not sufficient. Former President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary: “I paid a visit this morning to Mr. Tyler, who styles himself President … and not Vice President acting as President … a strict constructionist would warrant more than a doubt whether the Vice President has the right to occupy the President’s house, or to claim his salary, without an Act of Congress.” Efforts in both House and Senate to deny Tyler the formal title, or to make the argument stick that he somehow was different from the previous Executives in the powers he could exercise, did not carry.

How have the accidental Presidents, whose line was thus begun, performed in the White House?

First of all, we have had great and good luck. Tyler himself had courage of the rarest sort—the sort about which high drama is written. He quickly discovered that the infuriated Whigs who had placed him on the ticket as an afterthought (they had boasted of Tippecanoe “and Tyler, too ”) would not cooperate with him in his programs. But he was, he wrote, determined to turn aside their thrusts and “if practicable [to] beat back the assailants.” Truly he had become a “President without a party.” He thought of himself in another way also: “I am under Providence made the instrument of a new test which is for the first time to be applied to our institutions.” Against the slings and arrows of his opponents he would rely upon “the virtue and intelligence of the people.”

When the entire Cabinet (except Secretary of State Daniel Webster) walked out on him and fairly yearned for him to step down too, he held his ground tenaciously. As he wrote: “My resignation would amount to a declaration to the world that our system of government had failed … that the provision made for the death of the President was … so defective as to merge all executive powers in the legislative branch of the government. …”

Tyler succeeded in wrecking the plans of the Whigs to re-establish the Bank of the United States. The faithful Webster was able to help fashion a settlement of a boundary dispute with England in the now-famous Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Before Tyler went out of office he had the satisfaction of signing the joint resolution which brought Texas into the Union. The verdict on Tyler as President? Better than we bargained for or, given our carelessness, seem to have deserved.

The second President to answer to the epithet “His Accidency” was Millard Fillmore, who had not been consulted even once by President Zachary Taylor when “Old Rough and Ready” was choosing his Cabinet the previous year. Fillmore came to office in 1850, at a time when a constitutional crisis not of his making was testing the ties of the Union. This crisis revolved about the acquisition of new territories from Mexico as a result of the war just ended. Could the North and South agree on whether these lands were to be free or slave? Though born and bred a southerner, President Taylor would have no compromise in his opposition to the extension of slavery. John C. Calhoun, who except for a year as Secretary of State had served in the Senate ever since resigning as Jackson’s Vice President, was no less adamant; he represented southern determination not to yield an inch, insisting on secession, if necessary, to sustain the pro-slavery viewpoint.

The unexpected death of Taylor helped break the deadlock. Fillmore, even before his accession, had been in favor of the compromise proposals to which Henry Clay had already devoted so much of his waning physical strength. Now Fillmore could support compromise and save the Union. But he could not save the Whig party, fast dissolving in the presence of elements more potent than any President, accidental or undoubted, could control.

It is said that the coach-and-pair in which Fillmore and the First Lady rode—a gift to the President—was the finest the people of Washington had ever seen. It may well have been. In its way it was a symbol of the prosperous times that Fillmore presided over, in which the Chief Executive, like the public, was avoiding the moral issues of the day. The usual verdict of historians is that Fillmore failed to measure up to what the country required.

The advent of Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 opened the Pandora’s box of Reconstruction. It does no good to speculate about what would have happened had Lincoln lived. If a case can be made, however, that he was the beneficiary of historical luck in being assassinated before having to face postwar problems, then Johnson was a child of historical misfortune. He was unfit by reason of temperament, upbringing, or political circumstances to wrestle successfully with the task of knitting the nation together again; his administration was doomed from the start. Indeed, as Lincoln lay dying no one except ex-Governor Farwell of Wisconsin had thought of informing Johnson I That Johnson was impeached and almost removed from office is not of itself an adverse judgment on his administration. But his numbness to many of the subtleties of the race question and to the needs of growing industry, to say nothing of his political blunders, stands in the way of a favorable verdict on his performance.

The advent of Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 opened the Pandora’s box of Reconstruction.

The accession of Chester A. Arthur when James A. Garfield was shot in 1881 replaced one spoilsman in the White House with another. Arthur, however, almost immediately had the advantage of a public sentiment in favor of civil service reform (hitherto frequently scorned as “snivel service reform”); it was as if the people wanted to expiate the misdeed of Garfield’s assassin, a disappointed office seeker. Arthur, regarded merely as a party hack from the moment he took office, turned aside from his old connections and performed, if not brilliantly, at least better than adequately. There is no reason to guess that Garfield would have kept a steadier head and hand.

If there had arisen a certain tendency on the part of accidental Presidents to become mere caretakers, Theodore Roosevelt abruptly reversed it. He burst upon the scene and spluttered like a firecracker thereafter. He regarded the Presidency as a challenge to develop creative programs as stirring to the nation as war and the diplomacy of imperialism had proved to be. McKinley could never have matched such exuberance and restlessness even in his younger years.

The public always kept in sight the startling contrast between the martyred Ohioan and the irrepressible Rough Rider. It was but a pale reflection, however, of what intimates saw and heard in private. William Alien White reveals in his autobiography that on the night after McKinley’s funeral T. R. was wondering what he would do after leaving the White House seven years hence, scarcely fifty years old and still in the high tide of his physical and mental powers. “I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm,” he said.

But before the problem arose—and it proved to be as besetting as T. R. feared it would be—there transpired a memorable Presidency. It is not too much to say that it remains to the present day the outstanding accidental Presidency we have had: it revealed new uses for such words and phrases as reform, world power, the office of the Presidency, the control of big business, and the conservation of natural resources. The Republican party understood his worth: Roosevelt was the first Vice President-become-President to win nomination and election in his own right. Historians agree: they rank Roosevelt’s administration with the near-great ones in our history, only a cut below Washington’s and Lincoln’s.

At the time that fate bestowed the Presidency on Calvin Coolidge in 1923, he wrote later, he felt he was prepared to handle it. With admirable candor he added: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” Despite such disarming modesty, the question of whether he was an adequate Chief Executive remains open. Coolidge, called by his biographer “a Puritan in Babylon,” outshone President Harding in personal incorruptibility (if not in physical activity), and thereby—though he provided a lackluster regime—he may have saved the Republican party from the obloquy into which the revelations of the Harding scandals could have hurled it. But he was unable to do more; he could not transcend the limitations of his intellect and outlook.

The elevation of Harry Truman to the White House —the seventh Vice President to reach it by happenstance—seemed at first to have provided in a new postwar era merely a Coolidge with eyeglasses. Startled and shaken by his sudden transfer from political impotence to the seat of authority, Truman told newspapermen on his first full day in office: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

It was soon apparent that Truman, though untutored for the Presidency by F. D. R., with whom he had had only a few conversations before the fateful changeover of power, was taking charge. It may still be too early to judge him and his administration soundly. Possibly the magnitude of the problems in the postwar world have dwarfed all Presidents or made notably smaller the difference between the great and the average. Truman, however, showed political valor, climaxed by his surprise victory in 1948. And his forthrightness in international affairs—beginning with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and including his defiance of the Communists in Berlin and in Korea—entitles him to a choice niche in the history of the Presidency.

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 but 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.

Comparing one Vice President-become-President with another is, therefore, unhistorical if not futile.

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 pre-selection 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.

Then, only a few years later, the Wilson administration gave us another preview of national calamity. Wilson’s Vice President was the amiable Thomas R. Marshall, former governor of Indiana. A favorite son when the convention opened at Baltimore in 1912, he was designated with almost no opposition by an exhausted assemblage which had taken forty-five inconclusive ballots before choosing Woodrow Wilson to bear its standard. Marshall was as popular as any Vice President in our history and lives in a special heaven for his deathless observation: “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” Although never close to President Wilson, he was a genial teammate.

Despite his kindliness and personal affability, Marshall was often undignified in his expressions. To the visitors who peered into his office at the Capitol he sometimes called out: “If you don’t come in, throw me a peanut.” Although he often spoke out on public questions, he did not respect the office itself. A witty man, he sharpened his tongue against the lack of duties to perform. He once talked of his office this way: “The Vice President is like a man in a cataleptic state; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him.”

Whatever self-hate and inadequacy Marshall may have felt, many of his friends regarded his humility as his chief drawback. When Wilson was stricken in 1919, Marshall expressed the opinion that it would be a tragedy if he were called upon to take over the reins of government. By then, many Americans heartily agreed. Wilson himself had once referred to his Vice President as a “small caliber man.”

Quite apart, though, from Marshall’s intellectual shortcomings—which were patently considerable and which spoke badly for the sense of responsibility of the Democratic convention delegates who nominated him—there was the awful drama of a country presided over by an incapacitated and bedridden Chief Executive who would not resign. At one point when Marshall was being pressed to confront the terrible fact of the President’s disability, he declared plaintively: “I am not going to seize the place and then have Wilson, recovered, come around and say, ‘Get off, you usurper!’” Mrs. Wilson became in fact if not in law the first woman President of the United States, among other things screening the President’s incoming mail (and leaving some of it unopened) and protecting him diligently from the affairs of his administration. It is no tribute to that First Lady that her conception of loyalty to her husband served the country poorly and served not at all his conception of the Presidency as a place of vibrant leadership.

Can we afford such an interregnum again in our own day? Clearly we cannot: a repetition could easily become the nightmare of the republic. Time for us to act may even now be running out, for it does no good to ignore the fact that Lyndon Johnson was critically ill with a “moderately severe” heart attack in 1955. Congress and the states must act without delay to accept and ratify the constitutional amendment proposed, after extended hearings this spring, by Senator Birch Bayh’s subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. Under that amendment, if a President declares in writing that he is unable to perform the duties of his office, the Vice President would immediately become Acting President. And if an incapacitated President should not so declare, the Vice President, with the concurrence in writing of the majority of the Cabinet “or such other body as Congress may by law provide,” would inform Congress of the President’s inability to discharge the obligations of his office, and would become Acting President forthwith.

Can we afford such an interregnum again in our own day? Clearly we cannot: a repetition could easily become the nightmare of the republic.

Upon informing Congress that his inability no longer existed, the President would resume his office. In the event of a dispute over the fact of his recovery, the Vice President, again with the concurrence of a majority of the Cabinet or “such other body as Congress may by law provide,” would within two days inform Congress, which “shall immediately decide the issue.” If by a two-thirds vote Congress should find the President still unable to discharge his duties, the Vice President would continue as Acting President.

The amendment also deals with the matter of presidential succession. It provides for keeping the Vice Presidency always filled. If a vacancy occurred, the President would name a Vice President, subject to confirmation by a majority of both houses of Congress.

Hand in hand with providing against disaster caused by presidential disability and death should go a new resolve to select vice-presidential nominees with an eye to the fragility of life. Of the twenty men who have served in the White House in the last hundred years, six—thirty per cent—arrived there accidentally, via the Vice Presidency. The time has come to give the nomination of vice-presidential candidates the serious attention which events have repeatedly proved it deserves. The selection of a running mate should not be simply the last item on the agenda of tired delegates who want to go home.


A principal difficulty is that in our political culture it is almost impossible for a hopeful to mount a pre-convention campaign for the second place. Such activity would be ridiculed into the ground. Yet how else can a man make himself known and permit himself to be judged? On the other hand, can a potential Vice President serve effectively if his outstanding recommendations for the office are the stands he has taken on important issues, stands which may be at variance with those of the nominee for President?

Because the answers to these questions must inevitably be unsatisfactory, everything will continue to depend on the wisdom the presidential nominees show in making known their preferences for Vice President. Perhaps one day Americans will have the maturity to judge a prospective President in good measure by judging the running mate he has chosen. More often than most voters would guess offhand, in examining a national ticket they are studying not merely one but two future Presidents of the United States.

It seems frivolous, furthermore, that despite the stakes involved, no concerted national effort has yet been made to reduce the burden of disparagement the office of Vice President bears, even though its occupants are no longer nonentities. In a time of widespread affluence the Vice President still has no official residence; and in an era of incredibly complex national and international problems he has scarcely sufficient work to fill his day. He suffers also from the unavoidable fact that to millions he continues to appear to be only second best in the great game of politics.

Yet the lure of the Vice Presidency does not seem diminished, even for those who initially set their sights higher. George Mifflin Dallas may have said all that can even now be said in explanation. Writing around the year 1845, Dallas was trying to answer the question of why the Vice Presidency is a dignified place—almost as if he needed to convince himself. He found three reasons: “first, its’ [sic] incumbent is anointed by the national ballot-box, second, its’ action is manifested in the noblest of all deliberative bodies, the Senate of the US. and third, its’ accidency is the supreme executive.”

It is probably indecent even to guess how these separate elements have weighed in the thoughts of the thirty-seven men who have filled the Vice Presidency. But it may be instructive that only one man—Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, in 1924—ever rejected an actual nomination for the office. All the others were content to have a chance to sit—no, to wait—in the wings of history.

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