Friday, June 16, 2006

The Vice President: Who's That?

Question: Who was Woodrow Wilson's Vice President? [Answer at end.]

Don't know the answer? Then you probably aren't alone! It seems that we often overlook the Vice President (unless he makes the news because of a hunting accident of course!). I do hope you all know who the current VP is! Unless something happens to the President, it seems an unimportant position. John Adams called it the “most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” (The Complete Book of US Presidents, pg. 26) So I’ve decided to try to rectify some of that!

The Vice President really was given no role by the Constitution. His main job was: “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.” (Article 1.3) This infuriated someone like John Adams, who loved to talk. The office, though, is mostly ceremonial and the role we think of, as the President’s replacement if he is incapaciated, wasn’t even official until 25th Amendent was passed in 1967 (Obviously this was seen as the proper succession as John Tyler first succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrision in 1841. But look at a case like Edith Wilson, who assumed much of her husband’s role when he was sick – there was no law saying that the Vice President should do this instead). The 12th Amendment first required that the Vice Presidents fulfill the same requirements as the President before election (so he could replace the President if something happened to him). Modern Vice Presidents are part of the Cabinet and part of the President’s policy work, but that is more up to the President than any specific law. Now the VP is used as a surrogate for the President – he is sent to meet foreign dignitaries and to give speeches in place of the President. Modern Vice Presidents have a much broader role than John Adams did, but it could change depending on the specific President.

Many Vice Presidents have been little more than figureheads, some of them not even living in DC. Going back to John Tyler, after his election he went home to Virigina (he had a sick wife) and expected to stay there…but got home to the news that Harrison was dead and had to return. Theodore Roosevelt was on vacation with his family hiking when he received news that McKinley had been shot. John C. Calhoun resigned the Vice Presidency to become a South Carolina Senator, seeing that as a more powerful position.

The VP had no official residence until 1974 when Number One Observatory Circle was so designated. One story goes that the Hardings were offered a house for the Coolidges, but Mrs. Harding refused:

Mrs. Harding had always been cordial to the Coolidges, but she spoke her mind about where she thought they ought to be living. The widow of a former Missouri Senator, Mrs. John B. Henderson had offered her house and grounds as an official Vice-Presidential residence and a bill was sent to Congress to accept the gift and to establish an appropriation for the property's upkeep. Dr. Nicholas Butler and his wife were White House guests when the bill was being debated. They said they hoped it would pass. Dr. Butler said Mrs. Harding then "burst into flame and almost shouted "not a bit of it, not a bit of it. I'm going to have that bill defeated. Do you think I'm going to have those Coolidges living in a house like that? A hotel apartment is plenty good enough for them!"

In spite of this report of Mrs. Harding's comments, relations between the Hardings and the Coolidges always appeared to be cordial.(It would be not until approximately fifty years later that an official Vice-Presidential residence was established. Coolidge said it was good from a personal perspective that the residence wasn't established for him, as it would have meant additional expense for him which he would have found difficult to bear.)

The Vice Presidency has seemed so insignificant that New York used it as away to get rid of Theodore Roosevelt and “bury” him (this rather backfired on them when William McKinley was assassinated). While recent Vice Presidents have ran for President (and only has won: George H.W. Bush), it has traditionally not been the jumping stone to the Presidency. That distinction has gone instead to the position of Secretary of State. As a note only four VPs have become President by election (of course other VPs have become Presidents but from deaths or resignations): John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush.

Some fun quotes on the office of the Vice Presidency (unless otherwise noted, they from this link):

The vice president…is really a fifth wheel to the coach. It is a not a stepping stone to anything but oblivion.
-Theodore Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, pg. 346)

The vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit.
-John Nance Garner

A little over a week ago, I took a rather unusual step for a vice president…I said something.
-Spiro T. Agnew

Look at all the Vice Presidents in history. Where are they? They were about as useful as a cow's fifth teat.
-Harry S. Truman

I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.
-Daniel Webster, on not accepting the Vice Presidency

Trivia Answer: Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana

1 comment:

Jason said...

I do have to add that Vice-President Marshall is famous for exactly one thing - he was the man who coined the phrase "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar."