Friday, November 7, 2008

The Vice Presidency - The American Prince

Long ago, in a time far away the loser of the U.S. presidential election won something. The Vice Presidency.

Back in the day at the start of our nation's second government under our current Constitution, the person, or man at the time, with the second most number of electoral votes became the vice president. This meant that men of exceptional caliber who sought the presidency, if they lost, would end up in the vice presidency.

In the first and second contests, the Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington president and in both contests John Adams received the second most number of votes. However in our nation's third contest, John Adams ran for president and Thomas Jefferson ran against him. While Adams claimed not to be a part of the Federalist party, Jefferson ran against him as the anti-Federalist. Our nation's first partisan election. The end result was Adams as president and Jefferson as vice president. The first of two times where the president was of one party and the vice president was of another.

Vice President John Adams

By our nation's fourth election which for the only time pitted the incumbent president versus the incumbent vice president, the idea of having same-political party president and vice president was taking hold. Teaming up with politically minded allies was to avoid the results of the 1796 election, however this idea quickly backfired. Jefferson ran to be president with Aaron Burr as his vice president. The two tied in the Electoral College.

The Constitution kicked in and the House of Representatives determined the outcome of the election 36 ballots later with Jefferson the winner of the presidency and Burr his vice president. So as to avoid this confusion as to which candidate was running for which office the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1804 before that year's election. It established that the electors would vote separately for both the president and vice president, thus diminishing the office and the caliber of those who sought the office.

Our nation went from vice presidents like Adams and Jefferson to men who never achieved their status or reputation. There were controversial vice presidents like John C. Calhoun, our second vice president to serve two different presidents and the first to resign from office. While Adams and Jefferson may have been of two different political philosophies during the third presidential term starting in 1797, Andrew Jackson certainly dealt with an unruly Vice President Calhoun who preached succession over the right to nullify laws of the federal government.

Vice President John C. Calhoun

Calhoun's successor, Martin Van Buren, would be that last heir apparent vice president to go on to become president until the late 20th century. Van Buren's own vice president, Richard M. Johnson, would become the first and only vice president elected through the senate because of an affair with a slave. Johnson's successor to the vice presidency, John Tyler would go on to establish precedent which would later take the form of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, that is becoming president of the United States upon the death, removal, or resignation of the office holder.

Men would be nominated and elected to the office of such importance that never compared to that of our first two vice presidents. Some were put in the office to balance the political party's ticket geographically, ideologically, or politically. One was even put in the nomination of vice presidency to shut him up politically, Theodore Roosevelt was the man.

William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt

No vice president who succeeded to the presidency through the death of the president went on to election in his own right, until Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was put in the vice presidency as a way to control him, but once he ascended to the presidency all that changed. In 1904 he ran for election in his own right and won. So did the other vice presidents turned presidents through death of the 20th century, Coolidge, Truman and Johnson; with Ford, succeeded through a resignation, losing in a very close election.

The importance of the vice presidency was becoming apparent. It obviously wasn't realized until the passage of the 25th Amendment, but the nominees were becoming more than a balancing act. Richard Nixon was the vice president to Dwight Eisenhower and began to take on more responsibilities than his predecessors. His presence was well known by the time he joined the ticket. He rose up fast from representative to senator to vice presidential candidate. The Cold War was in its infancy by the time Nixon made it to Washington in 1953. Fear of war struck the American people and the health and safety of the man with the trigger for the nuclear bomb was of greater importance than ever before. OMG! Russia has a bomb! When Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, Nixon comforted the nation and letting the country and the world know that everything was under control in the United States. Once Eisenhower returned from respite, Nixon continued to be a face of American leadership. The line of succession showed its importance more than ever.

The president following Eisenhower would be the first president assassinated in the United States since 1901, and is also the first president lost under Secret Service protection. John F. Kennedy's death on November 22, 1963, would be the last president assassinated while in office and elevate Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the presidency. JFK's death and a vacancy in the vice presidency during the Cold War would reveal the dire need for the office of the vice president to never be vacant.

On February 10, 1967, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution passed the number of States necessary for approval. It confirmed the Tyler Precedent which John, whom the precedent is named after, established after President William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office. No longer could there be a vacancy in the second most powerful office in the country. This section would kick into gear rather quickly.

When for the second time in our nation's history, the vice president of the United States resigns, it is also the first time the 25th Amendment begins. Spiro Agnew stepped down for reasons not connected to Watergate, Nixon's problem, on October 10, 1973. By October 12th, Nixon nominates Republican Minority Leader of the House Gerald Ford. After the Senate and then the House voting in the majority, Ford was sworn in as vice president on December 6 of that year. He was the first vice president never to campaign for votes of the American people.

The new second couple on the cover of Time magazine, December 17, 1973.

Then on August 9, 1974, after Richard Nixon became the first president to resign, Ford became the first president never elected to either the vice presidency or presidency. Soon after swearing-in, his top priority was filling the vacancy of his prior office. Nelson Rockefeller became the second man to be appointed vice president.

The importance of the office was becoming apparent. By 1974 Congress finally got the vice president a permanent Washington home with the Naval Observatory. Ford, set on moving in, became president before the family could move in. Rockefeller only used it to entertain, the man's a Rockefeller, he's already got a mansion. Walter Mondale became the first Second Family to live in the Vice President's Residence. Mondale also showed the importance of the vice president as a leader in the Executive Branch.

The Vice President's Residence

Jimmy Carter ran as a Washington outsider, showing he was from anything and everything but Watergate. He was governor of the state of Georgia and he defeated an incumbent president, albeit dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Carter needed someone with knowledge of the game, and he chose a well known senator from Minnesota.

The role of the vice president was becoming important as politicians sought, or unsought, the nomination. Candidates who they themselves sought the higher spot on the ticket were being considered as number two. Lyndon Johnson was one in 1960 and George Bush in 1980. Reagan, like JFK, chose a rival for the top spot to fill the other half of the ticket. Bush had a larger foreign policy resume than the western governor. Bush like Nixon, would assume the role of an acting-president. This idea, similar to Nixon in the 1950s when an acting president was needed due to the health of the incumbent president, also become a section of the 25th Amendment. It has only been used twice since George Bush. Richard Cheney would act as president twice when George W. Bush went in for surgery in 2002 and 2007.

The other section of the 25th Amendment, involuntary withdrawal, has yet to be used. Although it came close in the 1997 film Air Force One, it hasn't happened in the real world.

With the exception of James Danforth Quayle and the nomination of Sarah Palin, the seriousness of the office has been taken into consideration when seeking a candidate for the second spot. The nation's 45th vice president in 1993 showed an increase in importance and responsibility for the nation's number two. It certainly increased beyond any expectations when the 46th VPOTUS, Cheney, succeeded Al Gore in 2001.

Aside from the increase in power from Gore to Cheney, there was another difference between the two vice presidents. Since the days of Nixon the incumbent vice president was seeking the top of the ticket when it was his time. Hubert Humphrey tried it in 1968 and just like Nixon in 1960 and John C. Breckinridge in 1860, they all lost. Incumbent Vice President Bush won the top job, the first sitting VP since Martin Van Buren in 1936, and the last. Gore tried to do what Bush did and run for president. While Gore received more popular votes than George W. Bush, he did not win the Electoral College which determine the winner.

Gore had that desire to run for president. Prior to being nominated for the vice presidency in 1992, he made a run for the Democratic nomination in 1988. He lost. But a youthful man and vice president he was. He had the ambition, desire, and opportunity to run for the nomination in 2000, just as Bush in 1988, Humphrey in 1968, and Nixon in 1960. However the idea of the VP thinking about his own political future rather than the vision of the president reeked of possible situations no different than the Adams/Jefferson administration of 1797. People with different agendas. A divided government within the Executive Branch.

Cheney's selection of himself as George W. Bush's vice president put a new light on the role of the vice president. This man was not looking for anything in his political future. The vice president would help, or simply, run the show. Cheney did not want to be president and was not planning on running at the end of the administration. His decision created the first time no incumbent POTUS or VPOTUS ran for a party's nomination since 1928. Sure Herbert Hoover was part of the incumbent administration as the Secretary of Commerce, but far from the elected posts of president and vice president in 1928.

Whether or not the person seeking the nomination or becomes vice president, they remind the public they never want the job. When they get the vice presidency and then succeed to higher office, they were put there because we the American people believe that they will make a good steward of our country. Since it has taken us so long to realize the importance of the vice presidency, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way we nominate him or her. Should the people have say or should the people allow one individual near dictatorial powers of appointing his or her choice? In 2008, half of the Democrats and independents, as well as Republicans, did not have their voice heard on the national ticket. Instead the number two spot went to someone who received a fraction of the primary and caucus votes. No matter what, Joe Biden, has the political resume to be a leader, and is a fine selection in this era of presidential-candidate's-appointing vice presidents. The Republicans allowed one man to select a woman with no real credentials for the job but whose only selection was because she was a woman. The conventions are only there to approve the anointment of the possible president, which is what the vice president truly is.

Maybe it's time for the second place person in the primary season become the vice presidential nominee, or allow for separate balloting of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Maybe even friends running as a ticket in a primary season, but avoiding all the pitfalls that came of a similar scenario in 1800. The vice presidency always seems to be evolving, just like our great nation.