We’re coming up on Presidents’ Day here, which allows workplaces to combine Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday into one convenient day off, gives retail businesses another excuse to advertise a sale, lets football fans argue that it should be made the day after the Super Bowl since people tend to take the day off anyway, and offers the pundit an opportunity to bemoan the poor quality of the current crop of presidential candidates.
But we might also want to give a nod to those people who are, according to one saying, “a heartbeat away from the presidency”: the vice-presidents.
Even though holding the office has been in fact a likely stepping stone to the presidency (14 of 47 VP’s have eventually become president in one way or another), it’s often been seen as a dead-end. John Nance Garner (VP: 1933-1941) is often credited with saying the job “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss” (the bodily fluid is usually “cleaned up” as in the title for publication).
“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” – John Adams (VP: 1789-1797)
“I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” – Daniel Webster, on being asked to be nominated as Zachary Taylor’s VP.
“Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice-president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.” – Thomas R. Marshall (VP: 1913-1921)
The job of the vice-president was to “go to weddings and funerals.” – Harry Truman (VP: 1945)
“The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, ‘How is the president?'” – Will Rogers
Of course, it must be kept in mind that Garner had a falling out with FDR over his New Deal policies early in his second term and actually ran for the Democratic party presidential nomination in 1940 (he tossed his hat into the ring before FDR did). At the time John Adams served, they hadn’t really figured out what the VP was supposed to do. Webster should have accepted the nomination – it was the second time he was asked. And both times, the president he would have served under (William Henry Harrison in the first case) died in office…. Marshall was completely bypassed when Woodrow Wilson was recovering from his stroke in favor of the totally unelected and politically inexperienced First Lady Edith Wilson. Truman was kept so out of the loop by FDR that when he took over the presidency, he was surprised with the existence of the Manhattan Project.
And as far as Will Rogers is concerned, there are a few more responsibilities to the office. The VP has a few Constitutionally mandated duties as President of the Senate, so he also has to practice saying “In accordance with the powers and responsibilities granted me by the Constitution, I hereby cast the deciding vote on this measure.”
Interestingly, prior to ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1967, no provision existed for filling a vacancy in the office of vice-president. As a result, the vice-presidency was left vacant 16 times—sometimes for nearly four years—until the next election and inauguration. The last extensive period without a vice-president started when Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of JFK. Until the inauguration in 1965, the US was without a VP.
Trivia Time: Which vice-presidents resigned from the office? Which served under more than one president? (I’m not giving you the answers. You’re online, use your favorite search engine)
Of the many vice-presidents, three stand out for their contributions to the role of the office. William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office. When VP John Tyler took over, it wasn’t clear just what his role would be. Many thought he should be considered the “Acting President”, but Tyler insisted and demanded that he would be treated as if he had been elected to the office directly. thereby establishing the Principle of Succession. VP Richard Nixon made it clear when he ran cabinet meetings during the times when Dwight Eisenhower was recuperating from his various illnesses (a stroke, ileitis, and a heart attack) that it was the responsibility of the VP to run things while the president was incapacitated. And when Walter Mondale was inaugurated as Jimmy Carter’s VP, he insisted on an office in the White House. He intended to serve as a true Assistant President, and not get pushed aside and ignored..
And that’s where we are today. The vice-president serves as the president’s “right hand man” – offering advice, whipping up Congressional support for favored legislation, covering for the president on official duties as needed, taking on special assignments….and of course casting deciding votes in the Senate.