Reflections on the Vice-Presidency, as Mitt Romney considers his options…
It is said that, just before he died, President Dwight Eisenhower said “I only made two mistakes as president, and both of them are sitting on the Supreme Court."
He was mistaken. His biggest mistake was selecting Richard Nixon as a runningmate, because without those eight years as a vice president, it is inconceivable that ornery Senator Richard Nixon could have won the presidency. Only this credential from 1953 to 1961 could have facilitated that elevation.
The same could be said of many presidents. The most important appointment – the most important decision of any kind by any president and his party – can, in retrospect, turn out to have been the choice of a runningmate in that first presidential campaign.
We can’t count the first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, since they were not chosen by their presidents. At the very beginning of our Constitutional format, the second vote-getter in the presidential race became the winner’s vice president. That didn’t work out badly for Washington, as Adams was okay, though a bit pompous. But it was a disaster for Adams, as he was stuck with a rival for a veep, one who actively plotted and organized against his own administration.
The process was fixed a few years later, but first an effort was made to have a runningmate system in 1800. In the first historical example of a runningmate being chosen to “help the ticket win,” Thomas Jefferson of Virginia selected Aaron Burr of New York to balance the ticket.
Burr was a respected trial lawyer in New York City who had served ably in the War of Independence, the grandson of preacher Jonathan Edwards and son of the head of what is now Princeton University. Burr was a well-educated gentleman, an aristocrat who had been allowed to speed through Princeton in record time (a deal that his rival Hamilton had requested, but had been denied; Hamilton didn’t have Burr’s pedigree to merit special treatment).
In his personal life, Burr was principled (though his principles would look rather odd, in toto, to us today, and did back then too)… but in his political life Burr was utterly unprincipled. He literally had no known position on most issues; two centuries of scholarship later, we still don’t know, to this day, where Burr stood on any of the major issues of the day. Somehow, in the purest era of political philosophy in our country’s history, Aaron Burr made it to the top without taking positions on anything.
But he was a brilliant politician. He had organized a political machine in New York sufficiently strong to, presumably, deliver New York state for Jefferson if they ran as runningmates. And so they did. Due to a miscalculation by the planners, Jefferson and Burr accidentally got exactly the same number of votes in the electoral college, causing it to go to the House of Representatives, where all sorts of shenanigans and backroom deals went on until Jefferson finally won on the 36th ballot.
They never trusted each other again, and this well-planned partnership resulted in another disastrous vice presidency. Jefferson was to pursue a relentless campaign against Burr later, jumping at the opportunity to charge Burr with treason when he went on a convoluted little expedition to the southwest.
After that, presidents seemingly decided that the vice presidency was a mistake, an unfortunate and unpleasant position that presidents are stuck with… so they decided to use the position as a way to win a state, or to win a constituency, but without really thinking that the position would ever really matter. Outside of presiding over a judicial impeachment or attending a foreign head of state’s funeral, the vice presidency was utterly unimportant.
Until 1836, when Andrew Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, a New York political boss like Burr, was elected president. It’s incredibly unlikely that he could have been elected if those eight years in the vice presidency hadn’t happened (though as a former governor, it is at least possible). Not a horrible president, perhaps, but not a very good one.
Then came 1840. In 1840, William Henry Harrison teamed up with John Tyler for the “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign. As soon as he won, Harrison got to work writing the longest inaugural address on record. Even after friend Daniel Webster edited it down as much as Harrison would allow, it still ran two hours – on a cold and wet day on which the 68-year-old Harrison wore neither coat nor hat, in an effort to show his still-youthful vigor. It didn’t work. He caught a cold, which became pneumonia a century before the availability of penicillin. The longest inaugural address on record directly caused the shortest presidency on record.
His vice president, John Tyler, therefore assumed the presidency, in the first test of the plan created over fifty years prior: if the vice president only exists to inherit the office if the president is lost, then that’s exactly what he should do. Many were shocked, having assumed that he would call another election; but as Tyler correctly pointed out, there is no provision in the Constitution for a special election for the presidency. So he finished out Harrison’s term.
In other words… by electing the team of Harrison and Tyler, we got one month of Harrison and forty-seven months of Tyler.
Nothing against Tyler, by the way… though he later became a secessionist and served in the rebellious congress of the Confederate States of America. Good choice, General Harrison…
Shall we look at other vice presidents? Zachary Taylor chose New Yorker Millard Fillmore for balance too – Taylor opposed slavery in the new territories, but Fillmore (from a free state!) supported slavery in there, to appease the south. Bright boy. We got sixteen months of a Taylor administration, and then thirty-two months of Millard Fillmore.
Abraham Lincoln, in 1864, wanted to show his willingness to reach out to the south, so he selected southerner Andrew Johnson as his runningmate for his second term. Lincoln didn’t count on being assassinated one month into his second term. We got one month of Lincoln and forty-seven months of Johnson.
Johnson wasn’t our worst president, and probably didn’t deserve a quarter of the calumny launched upon him. Nobody in his right mind would really pick the aftermath of a civil war to serve as head of state, so those years might have been a disaster in anyone’s hands. But still… his differences from Lincoln, the country’s unfamiliarity with him, and circumstances in general made his one of the most tumultuous presidencies on record. On trumped up charges, he was impeached by the House, though he survived the Senate’s trial. Still… four crummy years at the helm. Not a good choice, Mr. Lincoln.
In 1880, the nation elected – for the only time in its history – a member of the House of Representatives to the presidency. James Garfield had served as a congressman from Ohio for nine terms, and had risen to the post of Republican floor leader of the House. He was elected president with Chester A. Arthur of New York as his runningmate, and died from an assassin’s bullet just six months later.
Chet Arthur is one of the rare examples of a vice president who succeeded to the presidency and was not an embarrassment. With the Garfield/Arthur ticket, we got six months of Garfield and forty-two months of Arthur. That one turned out okay. A rarity.
We turn now to the 20th century… the presidency begins very quickly to become more activist, which means that the choice of president and vice president becomes more important than ever.
William McKinley was elected to his first term in 1896 with Garret Hobart as a runningmate, but Hobart died in 1899, so McKinley had to select somebody else for his second term. The political machine of New York was frustrated with their new governor, Theodore Roosevelt, and they proposed “kicking him upstairs” to the do-nothing office of the vice presidency. How did that work out for us?
They were elected in 1900 and took the oath in March. McKinley fell to an assassin’s bullet six months later, and we got three and a half years of Roosevelt. Then he was reelected and we got another four years of him.
Then in 1912, the bully megalomaniac decided to run on a third party ticket to deny his successor, William Howard Taft, a second term, causing the election of one of the worst heads of state in the history of this or any country, Woodrow Wilson.
Whatever one thinks of TR’s presidency, without that presidency it is inconceivable that the election of 1912 would have gone as it did, which means that without McKinley’s choice of TR as a runningmate, Woodrow Wilson would never – in this or any universe – have become president. The progressive egghead intellectual soft-on-socialism modern Democratic Party had its new birth with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, all because McKinley got talked into selecting TR as his veep. Sure, he was a troublesome blowhard in New York, but what damage could he do as a vice president?
Plenty, it turns out.
In the next rare example of a vice presidential choice turning out well, Warren Harding died in office and his quiet conservative vice president, Calvin Coolidge, completed the remaining year and a half of Harding’s term, then won one on his own. Coolidge’s choice was a rare one. Coolidge wasn’t chosen for ideological balance at all; Harding was a conservative and he chose a conservative runningmate. Geographical balance and the balance of experience had more to do with this choice; Harding was a senator from Ohio and Coolidge brought executive experience and New England origins as a Massachusetts governor. Coolidge gave us five and a half years of a very successful presidency.
Time passes, and we reach the fourth term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that son of a ____ (please don’t be offended; that’s how all decent people referred to him in his day). FDR, for his fourth term, selected Harry Truman. Again we have an example of a president dying just a few months into his term and his veep serving out virtually the whole term. Elected to a second term in 1948, Truman served almost two full terms in the presidency.
His term of office wasn’t so much a bad presidency as a time of missed opportunities. FDR came into office in the heart of the Great Depression, and instituted policies that made it worse and worse every year (read Amity Schlaes’ wonderful “The Forgotten Man” for details on this point). Since the Depression ended – finally – with World War II, the postwar recovery would have been the perfect time to undo the cataclysmic excesses of the prior administration.
Even a Democrat wouldn’t have needed to directly slam his predecessor in ending them. Truman could have said “The New Deal was right for the 1930s, and we’re proud of these successful measures to survive the economic hardships of the Depression, blah blah blah… but now we don’t need them anymore, so we can wind them down.”
We could have had a return to Constitutional governance, easily and painlessly, during the postwar boom. But such a vision was beyond the ability of this Missouri haberdasher, and the era of Big Government remained in place forever after. What a missed opportunity.
We’ve already addressed Eisenhower’s vice president; Nixon became the first former Vice President since Jefferson to be elected in his own right to the presidency. But before that could happen in 1968, we have to look at the election of 1960.
In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man of immense personal faults but holding reasonably responsible political positions, was persuaded to select Lyndon Baines Johnson as his runningmate. Why? To win the election. He actually thought that he could lose to the dour, distrusted, and utterly unlikable Nixon on his own, so he needed the repellant and crooked Senator from Texas as his runningmate? How he was ever convinced of this idea is beyond me.
When JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, the Kennedy-Johnson election of 1960 followed a now too-familiar pattern: two and a half years of Kennedy were followed by five and a half miserable years of Johnson. The LBJ years broke all records for political disharmony, chicanery, deceipt and economic destruction.
JFK was a political moderate, an anti-communist who recognized the need for low taxes to spur economic growth, while LBJ was a statist who believed in both big government and electoral system abuses of every kind. A vote fraudster and practitioner of every imaginable kind of legislative crime – from stealing elections to buying votes in the chamber to applying pressure to make fellow legislatures vote his way – the LBJ era was unprecedented in the damage it did. His years ushered in the political disaffection from which we suffer even today; his “Great Society” policies built on the New Deal to explode our annual deficits and put us en route to an insurmountable national debt.
And if JFK hadn’t selected him as vice president, it is utterly inconceivable that he could ever have been president.
When the awful Nixon presidency – yes awful – from wage and price controls to the EPA to continued vacillation over Vietnam policy to the shameful ABM treaty to the Watergate scandal – was hit by the Spiro Agnew scandal, he selected House Minority Leader Gerry Ford of Michigan as his new vice president.
When Nixon was forced to resign in August of 1974, Gerry Ford then became the first unelected president in our nation’s history. He had never been popularly elected to anything beyond his Grand Rapids area Congressional district – not even to statewide office – so he was at an immense popular disadvantage when the presidency fell to him. He meant well – and deserves credit for aggressively using his veto power like no other president before or since – but he fell to the goofy embarrassment Jimmy Carter in 1976.
So many of our current problems can be traced back to Carter. The rise of militant islamofascism, the expansion of Cuban-led and Soviet-sponsored terrorism that plunged so much of Africa and Central America into economic turmoil from which they have still not recovered… Carter was a disaster. And the only way he could possibly have been elected is if the GOP had been utterly discredited by the Watergate scandal and the rest of the Nixon administration. And all of that could only happen because Eisenhower gave Senator Nixon a base to run from, by making him vice president in 1952.
Could Ronald Reagan have lost to Carter in 1980? Of course not. A mismatched pair of socks could have beaten Jimmy Carter. But the party leadership convinced him to select George Herbert Walker Bush as his runningmate, a man who had never been a senator or governor, and therefore could never have been elected on his own to the presidency.
Bush’s vice-presidency enabled him to vault past far superior opponents in the 1988 primary – such as Delaware’s phenomenal governor Pete DuPont – to be elected to his single term as president. He was strong enough to win the presidency on Reagan’s reputation, but not strong enough to keep it. If Bush had not been president, could that slimy Arkansas character, Bill Clinton, possibly have won in 1992? Inconceivable. Reagan’s poor decision in 1980 led to the Clinton election a dozen years later.
From a policy perspective, Clinton’s administration was tempered by a Republican Congress that suppressed Clinton’s baser instincts, but his administration still left a dangerous legacy. Clinton got away with a degree of personal impropriety – partially because of his survival of the impeachment trial – that serves as precedent for a later and even worse president.
George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, is a decent, well-intentioned man, and he was a decent, well-intentioned governor of Texas when he ran for president in 2000. It is highly doubtful that he would have been governor if his father had not been president, and equally doubtful that he could have been nominated in 2000 without that credential. His father’s connections made it possible for him to line up endorsements early on that locked up the nomination for him, and he won the White House in 2000.
Bush’s two terms of well-intentioned focus on foreign policy and utter spinelessness on economic matters had two key political results which will keep students of economics and human sociology busy for centuries: The Pelosi takeover of Congress in 2006 and the Obama election of 2008.
The United States can bounce back from most problems; as politicians rightly say all the time, “our fundamentals are strong.” But every year, it gets worse. And the worse it gets, the harder such a recovery will be. The Obama election was only possible because of the Bush presidency, and the Bush presidency was only possible because of Ronald Reagan’s decision, in the summer of 1980, to select a former short-time Congressman and CIA Director as the Vice President of the United States.
All in all, over the past 224 years of United States history, we have only had 44 presidents. Fourteen of them were vice presidents first, and in almost each case, it is inconceivable that they could have risen to the presidency on their own without that choice.
When presidents choose their runningmates, they almost never think of that possibility. Intellectually, we all know that we are mortal (with the possible exception of the current president), but no candidate for the presidency ever thinks he’s going to die in the next eight years. Even old men like William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan thought they were sure to live out their terms; Reagan was right, but Harrison was wrong.
Presidential candidates and their parties (before 1940, it was more of a joint effort at the convention; since then, it has been almost a sole decision by the candidate) select their runningmates to appease a portion of their base, or to reach out to a portion of the independents, or to achieve geographical balance. A senator might pick a governor, a governor might pick a senator. A man lacking foreign policy experience might pick a diplomat, a general might pick a legislator. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that, on its own, as long as we don’t forget the important thing: the possibility of succession.
Of the forty-seven vice presidents in our history, thirty-three of them have turned out to be relatively unimportant in office. They did little as vice president to affect the world, and continued on that track thereafter.
But fourteen of them did go on to matter. Fourteen vice presidents have risen to become president themselves, either through the natural death, assassination, or resignation of the men who chose them, or through their own later election, with their service as vice president as their top credential.
In short, it matters. It matters more than any single issue or any other appointment. But for some reason, the American people too frequently dismiss the choice as unimportant, just because, three quarters of the time, it does in fact turn out to have been of no consequence at all.
But, as we have seen, more than one quarter of the time – fourteen times thus far – the selection of a vice president has been the most important decision made by a president. You just don’t know in advance.
Mitt Romney needs to take this into account, as all presidents should. Look to your legacy, and consider the question: am I potentially elevating the next Thomas Jefferson, Chester Arthur, or Calvin Coolidge?
Or might I be making it possible for the country to suffer under the next Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, which, without my thoughtless facilitation, would be an utter impossibility?
Choose well, Mr. Romney. All the world is watching.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A former Chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, he has now been a recovering politician for over fifteen years. Due to his rapidly progressing male pattern baldness and the unlikelihood of being able to deliver the state of Illinois to the ticket, he has graciously saved the Romney campaign the bother of vetting him, by taking his own name out of consideration for the 2012 veepstakes. No need to say thanks. Just be sure to choose somebody just as conservative, and we’ll call it even.
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