How big of a deal is the vice president?
“Not worth a bucket of warm (spit),” was how John Nance Garner characterized the office.
(Garner, vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, may have used a less-exalted liquid in his colorful metaphor.)
A job with no job in it, the task of being one heartbeat away from the presidency has been lampooned in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus cable show, “Veep,” and ridiculed by satirist Tom Lehrer (“Whatever Became of Hubert?”).
Yet much attention will be paid to the choice of Virginia U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, announced Friday by presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. A thoughtful choice of a running mate by a presidential candidate should help “balance” the ticket and appeal to a wider range of voters, said Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. But it might not.
By all rights, Donald Trump might have sought a centrist Republican female, said Allitt. With his choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, he ignored conventional wisdom. Allitt points out that it’s far from clear what impact the choice will have.
Political reporter Jules Witcover, in his book “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” wrote that the office is historically one with “little significance or utility in governing the nation’s affairs.”
The position has often been treated as a springboard to the presidency, though only two sitting vice presidents have successfully campaigned for the Oval Office since 1804: Martin Van Buren in 1836 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.
On the other hand, said Allitt, vice presidents have done well by being in the right place at the right time. Eight have ascended to the White House after the president died, either due to sickness (Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt) or assassination (Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy).
(One, Gerald Ford, made it to the highest office after his president, Richard Nixon, resigned.)
“On balance,” said Allitt, “if you want to be president, it’s still good to be vice president first, if you can.”
If you can stand it. A vice president doesn’t always get respect from the boss. In the earliest era of the Republic, the vice president was the runner-up in presidential elections, so the two were often from different parties. This resulted in John Adams serving with his political rival Thomas Jefferson.
Later matches have been similarly disharmonious. Richard Nixon served two terms under Dwight D. Eisenhower, though the two disagreed about Vietnam, civil rights and communism. When Nixon ran for the higher office in 1960, Eisenhower was asked, “Can you think of a major contribution that Nixon has made to your administration?” and Eisenhower answered, only partly joking, “Well, if you give me a week, I might think of one,” a comment that hurt Nixon’s feelings and his campaign.
Of course, vice presidents have occasionally returned the favor by torpedoing the hopes of their running mates.
Many would have put their money on Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008, until he chose then-Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP. Palin, in short order, made several public missteps that revealed her as not ready for prime time. “No sooner had the Republican Party made the choice and become committed to her when they realized they made a blunder,” Allitt said.
Perhaps no vice president was more hostile to his boss than John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina congressman who served under Andrew Jackson from 1829 to 1832.
A strident proponent of states’ rights, Calhoun fought directly against the policies espoused by his commander in chief, urging his native South Carolina to nullify tariffs that they deemed unacceptable. (More dastardly still, Calhoun and his wife attacked the reputation of Peggy Eaton, a Jackson family friend and the wife of Jackson’s Secretary of War John Eaton.)
Jackson sent warships to Charleston harbor, threatening to hang any man who supported nullification. A compromise was reached, but Calhoun resigned, and Jackson found another VP in Martin Van Buren.
When you threaten to hang your vice president, the writing is on the wall.