The job of the Vice-President is much maligned and held in little esteem by those who know the job. In a telegram from Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas Marshall, to newly nominated Republican vice presidential candidate Calvin Coolidge, Marshall wrote, “Please accept my sincere sympathy.” Harry Truman wrote of the job, “As useful as a cow’s fifth teat.” Maybe the smartest men are the ones who avoid the indignity in the first place. Daniel Webster, explaining why he declined the vice-presidential nomination in 1848 replied, “I do not choose to be buried until I am really dead.”
In fact, even from its very inception it inspired rancor from its holders. John Adams, America’s first Vice President said, “My country, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” But Adams experience demonstrates the extreme irony. As insignificant as the position may seem to its holders, the American public seems to value the experience it provides. Adams, of course, went on to become our second president.
Since John F. Kennedy, we’ve had eight presidents: four have been governors and four have been vice-presidents. This year we will have a Senator rise to the presidency, but clearly this is the exception not the rule.
The bottom line is that while the job may be insignificant in and of itself, the experience of having had the job is by no means insignificant. Which is why I find it so perplexing that still today vice-presidents are selected on their merits as VICE-PRESIDENTS as opposed to PRESIDENTS IN TRAINING. This is, ultimately, the job of the vice-president—to succeed the President in his duties if he (or she) is no longer able. The rest is killing time. Consequently, the one quality a vice-president should possess is to be presidential material. Yet the qualities for which modern-day vice-presidents are selected is their ability to complement the presidential nominee as opposed to their ability to be attractive as a stand-alone candidate who might one day hold the highest office in the land.
An often-investigated “qualification” many vice-presidents are selected for is from where they hail. There is a line of thinking that vice-presidential candidates can help deliver the votes of their home state. This, in fact, seems to have some real merit, at least in the elections since 1960. In the twelve elections beginning in 1960, there have been 24 vice-presidential nominees. Seventeen of these delivered their home state. However, only seven of those 24 candidates could be considered to have come from a “key” state—either big states or swing states. The rest called smaller states home: Wyoming, Connecticut, North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, for instance. Of the seven “big state” vice-presidential nominees only George Bush in 1980 and 1984 and Lyndon Johnson in 1960 delivered their home state (Texas in each case). And in the 80s, it’s safe to say Ronald Reagan would have carried Texas with Captain Kangaroo as his vice-presidential nominee. Reagan beat Carter 55% to 41% in 1980 and Mondale 63% to 36 % in 1984.
In the midst of the current election, we find the discussion about a potential Barack Obama running mate centering on someone who has a longer D.C. resume or, more specifically, significant foreign policy experience. Jim Webb fit this bill having been Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy with the added benefit of being a Vietnam War veteran, which theoretically would have helped Obama shore up his position with the pro-military crowd. John McCain, apparently, also lacks a full complement of presidential qualifications, causing the pundits to postulate that a running mate who is more palatable with the social conservatives and evangelicals would make for an attractive dance card. Mike Huckabee and Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin are highly regarded on that list. Furthermore, Senator McCain has a self-acknowledged economic deficit so a running mate with extensive economic experience would be beneficial to his chances of being elected—enter Mitt Romney.
Of course, the practical reality is that the functional relationship between the two High-Office holders is seldom this collaborative. Presidents are not known for humbly calling upon vice-presidents to develop policy initiatives or make decisions in areas in which the president is perceived to have a deficit. I have a hard time imagining President McCain urgently calling Vice-President Romney on his cell: “Mitt, I know you’re at my doctor’s office checking on my health but you’re needed at the big house, pronto. These Cabinet fellas are talking economics and, shucks, I need a little help with this supply and demand chart.”
The reality is that we tend to view potential vice-presidential nominees as the other half of a matchmaking proposition. We look for VP yin for the nominee’s yang. We wonder who would make a cute couple, which potential nominee would complement the party’s candidate, who would offset perceived weaknesses, who could take out the trash without complaining while the other is at the office.
It makes me wonder if Samantha Daniels, the Manhattan Matchmaker specializing in discreet setups for the rich and famous has contemplated political consulting. Better yet, it might be easier to find the best candidate if those in need of a (running) mate registered at “veep-Harmony.com.”
First Name: Senator
I’m Currently: Campaigning
I’m a (circle one): man seeking man, man seeking woman, woman seeking woman, woman seeking man
Racial Preference: no preference/ black/ Hispanic/ Asian/ Other
Age Preference (circle one): older/ younger/ +/- 5 years
Postal Code: 20500
How did you hear about us (circle one): O’Reilly, Olberman, Limbaugh, Colbert, Direct Mail, Referred by “friend,” other.
At least THIS process would put the proven power of the Internet and current technological advances to work on creating the best match possible given our current standards for qualification.
Then again, maybe the Founding Fathers had it right from the beginning. The vice-president was the presidential candidate who came in second, thus assuring that American citizens had a vice-president who many already thought worthy of the Presidency. I’m not advocating a return to that system, but I am suggesting that the best vice-president is also someone we can imagine being president, not simply on the president’s elbow throughout the campaign.
This time of each election year is the ultimate exercise in self-indulgent palaver by those of us who make our living by saying or writing, “What he SHOULD do is…” We get so caught up in creating the perfect match that we forget the potential importance of the vice-presidency. Ultimately, the choice makes little difference whatsoever—at least not for four more years when this year’s VWM (vetted white male) becomes our next Man Seeking (wo)man.