A History of the Presidency - The vice president



John Adams of Massachusetts, Washington's successor in 1797, had been the Vice President. As such he was the first to suffer under the restrictions a vice president has generally confronted, lacking any stated duty except to preside over the Senate, and vote there only to break a tie. At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry, who was destined to serve as vice president (1813–1814) under Madison, insisted there was no need for the office. Adams regarded himself as "a mere mechanical tool to wind up the clock." Notwithstanding, he had seen, he wrote his wife, that he was invested with "two separate powers-the one in esse [in actuality] and the other in posse [in potential]." In actuality he was nothing; in potential he could be everything.

So it has been in the entire history of the office. Although Adams as president viewed Jefferson, his vice president, as "the first prince of the country, and the heir apparent to the sovereign authority," Jefferson complained that no one was consulting him "as to any measure of government." Charles G. Dawes, the vice president under Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929) told then Senator Alben W. Barkley, who later would be vice president under Harry S. Truman (1945–1953): "I can do only two things: one is to sit up here and listen to you birds talk, without the privilege of being able to answer you back. The other is to look at the newspapers every morning to see how the President's health is!" Still, despite these derisive words, eight vice presidents, by office only men standing in the wings, have succeeded to the presidency.

Although he felt useless, Adams still holds the record for breaking tie votes (twenty-nine). By comparison, in his eight years as vice president under Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) cast only eight such ballots, and Albert Gore, vice president from 1993 to 2001, only four. By a quirk of fate, it became Gore's last official duty to announce from the chair in the Senate in January 2001 the electoral vote making the victor in the canvass just ended his opponent, George W. Bush.

When Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied in the electoral college in the presidential election of 1800, the House of Representatives was called upon to choose between them. Since the Twelfth Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1804, electors must mark their ballots to show separately their choices for president and vice president. The result has been the choosing of a person not as a potential successor to the presidency but in order to bolster the chances of the head of the ticket. The office was shortly used to "balance" a presidential ticket with a politician from another part of the country. Thus Jefferson and Madison, both from Virginia, served with George Clinton of New York. Sometimes it is personalities that have been "balanced": the sophisticated New Yorker Martin Van Buren, for instance, had as his running mate Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, who boasted that he "was born in a cane brake and cradled in a sap trough." Sometimes the choice has been used to neutralize the stance of the presidential candidate. Thus when William Jennings Bryan, ardent advocate of free silver, was nominated in 1896, the Democratic convention named Arthur Sewall of Maine, a bank president, to run with him. Sometimes the vice presidential nominee settles a political debt, as in 1932 when John Nance Garner of Texas was repaid for helping make Franklin D. Roosevelt the standard-bearer. In 1984 the Democratic nominee, Walter F. Mondale, in a bow to the rising tide of feminism, named Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York, to join him at the top of the ticket. She became thereby the first woman designated by a major party for one of the two highest elective offices. General Eisenhower's selection in 1952 of the young Richard Nixon to be his vice president owed something to Ike's eagerness to blunt criticism that he was too old to be president. Bill Clinton's naming of Al Gore as his running mate in 1992 was aimed in part at projecting an image of youth in the Democratic party leadership. Presidents who have served more than one term have sometimes changed their vice president. Of the fifty-four presidential elections since the first, only eight resulted in the reelection of the entire ticket.

In the nineteenth century Martin Van Buren was the only vice president who succeeded to the White House without the death of his president, Van Buren being elected in 1836. Today it is assumed that the vice president is "in the succession," and from the outset of an administration he is an adviser and consultant to the president—the only other nationally elected official. Since 1960 it has been the practice for the presidential nominees to select the other half of their ticket, rather than leave the choice to the convention, and upon election to give the vice president a medley of tasks, mostly ceremonial but increasingly substantial. For example, President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) insisted that Vice President Walter F. Mondale attend every policy meeting that he himself did. This arrangement took on new form under President George W. Bush (2001–) when his vice president, Dick Cheney, was given four offices in Washington to deal with the wide range of responsibilities laid upon him. These tasks made him seem a kind of prime minister, the most powerful holder of the second highest office in history. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Cheney was reported to be performing his duties from a "secure and undisclosed location." He and the president were hoping to ensure the continuity of government in the event that either became a victim of a terrorist attack. Cheney remained "the coach to Mr. Bush's quarterback," and through video conferences and frequent use of the telephone, Cheney kept a close watch on policies.





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