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U.S. vice presidency has evolved to — what?

Most who've held No. 2 office have faded from memory

WEEHAWKEN, N.J. — Beside a mighty river, tucked away in the shadow of a towering ribbon of asphalt that leads drivers into the Lincoln Tunnel and Manhattan beyond, sits a plot of land notable because of a two-century-old event that, for most Americans, is largely forgotten.

Here, during an 1804 duel, Aaron Burr shot and killed the guy whose face now decorates your $10 bills — Alexander Hamilton, the former Treasury Secretary. Burr was Thomas Jefferson's vice president at the time, and his action remains the highest-profile act ever committed by a sitting v.p. short of actually becoming president.

It's as if Dick Cheney had gunned down an armed Madeleine Albright in the parking lot of the Fairfax Costco. Yet when the country's No. 2 guy killed a rival Founding Father on the shores of the Hudson River and was charged with murder, he still ended up as mere historical footnote.

Which is precisely the point. Such has been, and is, the lot of the American vice president — sidekick, runner-up, constitutional escape hatch, perennial pretender to the throne in a country that doesn't have one.

"I'm here," he has often seemed to say to no one in particular.

"What is it exactly that the v.p. does every day?" Sarah Palin wondered rhetorically in July after being asked if she might be gunning for the job.

She was making a point. The vice presidency has long been an odd beast that no one is quite certain how to pet. It's a position that has been largely meaningless until, in the most dire of circumstances, it suddenly isn't.

"He's superfluous — until he's president," says Jeremy Lott, author of "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency."

Indeed, despite Al Gore's high profile and Cheney's behind-the-scenes ministrations, the job for which Palin and Joe Biden are vying remains a cipher. By intent or neglect, it was built that way from the beginning. And its occupants have felt the effects.

After William McKinley's assassination in 1901, Republicans were terrified that his raucous, brash vice president would lead the country to ruin. Theodore Roosevelt, we now know, didn't. "His Accidency" John Tyler, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur didn't distinguish themselves as well when their bosses expired in office. Harry Truman did, though it took America a while to recognize it.

Whether or not they rose to the occasion, however, at least those guys are remembered.

Consider some of the men who held the job and remained unelevated by either death or election: Daniel Tompkins (Monroe), Hannibal Hamlin (Lincoln's first), Garret Hobart (McKinley's first), Thomas Marshall (Wilson). Now consider how many of those you've actually heard of.

Not surprising. The Sundance Kid aside, American culture often grants meager props to the right-hand man. Playing Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson, Jimmy Olsen to Superman, Robin to Batman or, for that matter, Dan Quayle to George H.W. Bush is not always the most epic of endeavors.

Here, courtesy of Lott, are some of the ways the vice presidency has been trivialized over the years by its occupants: "a wreath layer," "a nullity," and, from the ever histrionic John Adams, "the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived."

The earthiest quip of all came from FDR's vice president, John Nance Garner: The second-highest office in the land, he scoffed, is "a warm bucket of spit," giving Lott his book title. Whether Garner actually said "spit" is much disputed.

The most recent of those comments was a half-century ago. In recent decades, the vice president has spoken less softly and sometimes even carried a bigger stick. The office has evolved, as has a changing perception hammered home by the realization that, over four months in 1945, Truman went from first-term v.p. to ushering in the atomic age.

More subtle evolutions followed, each based on a specific personality — from power broker Lyndon B. Johnson to cranky Spiro Agnew to the diplomatlike Walter Mondale to the low-key power of Cheney.

Today, according to political scientist Chris Dolan, it's "a significant advisory position."

"It's become almost a quasi-National Security Council, especially on foreign-policy issues," says Dolan, a scholar at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., who studies the vice presidency.

John McCain seems to see the potential for this model. In a Republican debate late last year, he said he wasn't surprised that, in the aftermath of 9/11, a still-inexperienced Bush looked to Cheney to complete him.

"I wouldn't have to do that," McCain asserted, though he allowed that he might rely on a vice president to be his more informed partner in other issues. But, the Arizona senator concluded, "The vice president of the United States is a key and important issue." Particularly, perhaps, when the president is 72 and has been treated for cancer.

Barack Obama is optimistic about the possibilities, too. On the day he announced Biden as his running mate last month, he said, "Joe won't just make a good vice president — he will make a great one." Given history, that may be a tall order.

Both Lincoln and FDR made a point of bringing their rivals and people of different political stripes into their administrations to offer reality checks. That is less true with Biden than with Palin, who is a counterweight to McCain's traditionally more centrist positions.

"In the corporate world, really effective leaders are comfortable surrounding themselves with people who may have very different viewpoints," says Stuart Youngblood, a professor of management at Texas Christian University.

"If the vice president were to model the behavior of a v.p. in a corporation," Youngblood says, "it would be: When they go into a room together they can differ all they want, but they better come out of that room and support each other."

Comparing American government to American corporations has become fashionable in recent years.

Such analogies cast the president as CEO and the vice president as ... what? Given that most companies have multiple v.p.s, each with specific duties, where is the comparison most apt? Nowhere, says James O'Toole, co-author of "Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor."

"The job of the vice president is not analogous to any job I can think of that exists in the corporate world," O'Toole says. "There is no job in which you stand around waiting, in which you're the backup quarterback. At least the backup quarterback runs the plays in practice. The backup president doesn't do that."

So here, constitutionally, is what the vice president has been charged to do since the 12th Amendment was instituted 204 years ago, putting the two positions on the same ticket rather than having the vice president be the rivalrous runner-up:

• Step in if the president is disabled, incapacitated or dead.

That's pretty much it. Since then, the vice presidency has been awash in possibility and obscurity, in hope and ambitions kept in check. And, "Babylon 5" and "24" aside, the image of a scheming vice president trying to overthrow the chief is not the hallmark of the office today.

Instead, it's a continual fight by a competent, often talented politician to claim relevance and be useful, to prepare for the worst and, in the meantime, be available.

That's been true since 1788, when the office's relevance was asserted in one of the Federalist Papers — albeit after the writer acknowledged that the notion of a vice president "has been objected to as superfluous, if not mischievous."

The author was none other than Alexander Hamilton. Sixteen years later, as he lay on the bank of the Hudson River in Weehawken and contemplated Aaron Burr's bullet in his belly, he might have wished the position didn't exist after all.