Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Second ("The American Vice Presidency" by Jules Witcover)

To be elected vice-president of the United States is to acquire a thankless and almost foreordained task. Of the 47 men who've held the office, only four have gone on to be elected president in their own right after their predecessors' term ended--and the results were decidedly mixed.* Nine more succeeded a president who died of natural causes, was assassinated, or--in the case of Richard Nixon--was forced to resign.** And, perhaps most tragically, when seven of these men died in office themselves, not a single one was replaced until the president himself faced reelection and was able--or perhaps forced--to fill the post, a testament to the office's historically low opinion among not only the majority of Americans, who didn't seem to notice the vacant posts, but also the nation's own federal government, which didn't seem to care. (The situation is even more tragic when you add to this total the number of vice presidents who passed away within a few years of leaving office, many of them having served their final months or years in declining health to no one's apparent alarm.)

In fact, of these 47 men, only one was able to achieve a level of true dignity, grace, and equality in his role as vice president. He did so on level footing with his president, based on an agreement reached amiably between the two men before their party's convention, while also avoiding any deep and lasting rifts between himself and the Oval Office. He presided over the Senate with skill, making sure his firsthand knowledge of the institution's ways didn't imbue him with either arrogance or deference, and he took on legislative and diplomatic responsibilities beyond the Senate without ever neglecting his Constitutional duties there. And yet, after spending four years as the nation's second-most-powerful public figure--only "a heartbeat away from the presidency," as they say--there are few if any Americans who would be able to identify Walter Mondale from this description. Such is the fate of those who choose to seek--or are foolish enough to accept--the office.

Today, the vice president is seen as less of a stand-by commander in chief--a person ready and able to take control in case of a presidential vacancy or national emergency--and more of a path to scoring political points and possibly influencing the outcome of an election. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden did much to reassure voters who were concerned over the freshman senator's inexperience with the culture of Washington, D.C. and the United States' near incomprehensible foreign policy, both of which Biden--a Senate veteran and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations--offered in spades. Obama's opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, a nationally recognized congressman whose staunch conservative ideals overshadowed Romney's damaging record as a moderate. Four years earlier, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, the relatively unknown first-term governor of Alaska, as a way to counteract Obama's historical significance while also invigorating his campaign with some much-needed personality; unfortunately, the decision backfired, transforming the election into a referendum on Palin's preparedness and intelligence rather than a contest between candidates and their ideas.

Then again, Obama and his opponents were in good company:  very rarely has a president's running mate been chosen simply to guarantee a fluid transition should the nation's highest office be suddenly and unexpectedly vacated, as the Constitution prescribes. Instead, many of the nation's vice presidents were chosen to offset--or complement--the leading name on the ticket rather than to ensure the continuation of the federal government in times of crisis or tragedy. As might be expected, this often put our country at great risk. John Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan, would later join the Confederacy during the Civil War, causing the Senate--which he had joined after leaving office--to declare him a traitor and unanimously expel him from its body. Had Breckinridge found himself president at any point, the fate of the entire country, not to mention the Civil War and the end of slavery, might have changed dramatically. There is also the more recent example of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, who was forced to resign from office a full ten months before Nixon himself on charges of corruption, for which he plead "no contest." Had Agnew been able to hold onto his office for another year, he would have become the most powerful man in the world; instead, he is today considered one of--if not the--worst vice president in American history.

Unfortunately, in the long history of the American vice presidency--which, in the hands of Jules Witcover, comes in at just over 500 pages an in an abridged and heavily summarized form--not a single one of those 47 men could claim to have had a lasting influence on the nation while in office. Even the most bombastic, progressive, or controversial of these men--Walter Mondale, John Nance Garner, Dick Cheney--today recede into history only as footnotes rather than interesting chapters all their own. Most Americans, if not all but the most astute students of history, have little knowledge of any of the vice presidents who served outside of their own lifetimes. As our nation continues to grow older, that fact becomes increasingly true.

The subtitle of Witcover's book is "From Irrelevance to Power," and the most striking example of this shift is Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's vice president, who seemed at times to be the more influential of the two men. And while Cheney's legacy will be debated for decades, at least until there is enough distance from the emotions of the moment, just as all presidents and vice presidents are judged, he seems to have been the driving force behind Witcover's lengthy and largely impartial--if not entirely exhaustive--study of the office and the men who have held it. As the next presidential election approaches, one in which we will see two new nominees choosing two more candidates for the vice presidency, we must remind ourselves that the vice presidency has a greater role to play in our lives and government than any of us recognize. After all, it's been forty years since a vice president was forced to succeed a president; the youngest voters at that time of Gerald Ford's swearing in would now be fast approaching retirement age. As history demonstrates, fate has little interest in what we choose to remember from the past and what we choose to forget, and our actions--not to mention the actions of the next president, his party, and his supporters--can determine the entire future of the country in unexpected and irreversible ways.

*John Adams succeeded George Washington and was a failure, whereas Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams and was a success. Martin Van Buren followed his president, Andrew Jackson, into the White House but only served one term, just as George H.W. Bush followed Ronal Reagan in 1988 and was voted out four years later, and for almost the same exact reason--a tumultuous economy.

**These nine men were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford. Surprisingly, the forty years since Ford ascended to the presidency marks the second-longest span of time in which there has been no presidential vacancies, second only to the fifty-two years between George Washington's inauguration and William Henry Harrison's tragic--but entirely avoidable--death one month into his first term.