from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: Vice Presidents on Being Vice President

The seal of the vice president of the United States on a podium. Shannon Finney/Getty Images
The seal of the vice president of the United States on a podium. Shannon Finney/Getty Images

July 30, 2020

The seal of the vice president of the United States on a podium. Shannon Finney/Getty Images
The seal of the vice president of the United States on a podium. Shannon Finney/Getty Images
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he will announce his choice for his vice presidential nominee next week. That has spurred one last burst in the quadrennial exercise of speculating about who could be picked and why. I don’t have any particular insights to add to that handicapping conversation. 

I do know that the position is heavily coveted. One might wonder why, though, given what the men who have held the job—and so far all forty-eight of them have been men—have said about it. (Yes, more men have been vice president than president, four more to be exact.) 

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John Adams, the first vice president in U.S. history, set the tone from the start. He wrote in 1793 to his wife Abigail that “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived." 

Doubts about the benefit of being vice president persisted in the years that followed. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster turned down the offer to be William Henry Harrison’s running mate in 1840, saying “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” It was not a good career move. Harrison died just a month after taking office. But his death didn’t change Webster’s conviction that the job of vice president was beneath him. He reportedly declined the opportunity to be Zachary Taylor’s running mate in 1848. Like Harrison, Taylor died in office.

Theodore Roosevelt didn’t give into his pride as Webster did. He agreed to be William McKinley’s running mate. But his enthusiasm for the job was limited. He offered that “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than Vice-President.”

Thomas Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson, compared being vice president to being “a man in a cataleptic fit; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.” Marshall also told the story of “two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.” As much as Marshall complained, he couldn’t have disliked the job that much. He served two terms.

John Nance Garner, who served two terms as vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt—this after serving as speaker of the House—called his decision to accept the job “the worst damn fool mistake I ever made.” Cactus Jack, as he was known, didn’t stop there. He provided the world with perhaps the best known summary of what it means to be number two in the American political system: It’s “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Publications worried about the sensitivities of their readers changed that to “a bucket of warm spit.” Garner also called the vice presidency “the spare tire on the automobile of government." 

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FDR went through three vice presidents. His last pick, Harry Truman, wasn’t any more enthusiastic about the job than Garner was. Surveying the history of the position, Truman said “Look at all the Vice Presidents in history. Where are they? They were about as useful as a cow's fifth teat."

Vice President Spiro Agnew understood Truman’s point. The understudy to Richard Nixon put it this way: "It is a damned peculiar situation to be in, to have authority and a title and responsibility with no real power to do anything.” That gap between title and responsibility grated on Agnew’s successor, former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He described his duties as: “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”

The inherent limits of the job are why Daniel Webster is not the only person to have respectfully (or otherwise) declined to be vice president. None described his reasons more colorfully than John McCain. He dismissed questions about his interest in serving as George W. Bush’s running mate—not that the then-nominee intended to offer McCain the spot—by saying: “The vice president has two duties. One is to inquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of Third World dictators. And neither of those do I find an enjoyable exercise.”

Of course, some vice presidents have been consequential. Dick Cheney may be the best example. He even got his own movie. And Biden himself goes to great pains to make the case that he was integral to the Obama administration’s decision-making, a point that President Barack Obama continually corroborates. And when Biden announces his pick, he likely will say that she—he has a pledged to pick a woman as running mate, something that is long overdue—will be an essential part of his governing team.

Whether that is how things work out should a Biden administration come to pass remains to be seen.  The vice presidency comes with no substantive responsibilities besides breaking ties in the Senate, something that seldom happens. Any other tasks a vice president takes on risk upstaging the president or treading on someone else’s turf. That is perhaps why Hubert Humphrey, who found himself ostracized for a time by President Lyndon Johnson for providing unwanted advice, lamented: “You are trapped, vulnerable and alone, and it does not matter who happens to be President.” Or as Dan Quayle put it: “The job is just awkward, an awkward job.” 

But for all that the job of vice president retains tremendous appeal, and not just because of the great residence that comes with it. Its appeal lies in the possibility it represents. As America’s first vice president recognized: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” And that potential to be everything is why Biden’s choice deserves the scrutiny it will inevitably get.

Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post. 

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