The Rising Power of the Modern Vice Presidency

By Goldstein, Joel K. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Rising Power of the Modern Vice Presidency


Goldstein, Joel K., Presidential Studies Quarterly


These are truly extraordinary times for the American vice presidency. For most of American history, citizens have heard the familiar disparagements about the weakness of the nation's second office, from John Adams's complaint that "[m]y country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived ... I can do neither good nor evil," to Daniel Webster's refusal to run for vice president because "I do not propose to be buried before I am dead," to John Nance Garner's reported conclusion that "the vice presidency is not worth a pitcher of warm spit" (Goldstein 1995)--actually, he may have uttered a different four-letter word, but that's a different story--to Nelson Rockefeller's dismissal of his final office as simply "standby equipment" (Persico 1982, 245).

Against that history of nearly 200 years, who would ever have thought that in 2008, serious people would be wondering whether the office has become too powerful? Who could have imagined that the adjective "imperial" would be used to modify "vice presidency" (Blumenthal 2007)? Surely Hubert H. Humphrey would never have anticipated that juxtaposition of such inconsistent concepts. He may have recommended the office to Walter F. Mondale (Moe 2006), but he suffered in it from underutilization, subject as he was to Lyndon B. Johnson's capricious treatment. That experience prompted him to coin Humphrey's law about the dependent nature of his office: "He who giveth can taketh away and often does" (Goldstein 1997, 112; Humphrey 1969).

Humphrey had hoped to be a close presidential advisor and troubleshooter, but ultimately he wanted to be vice president so he could one day be elected president. Forty years ago, he found that his tenure as vice president complicated that ambition. That service, in the eyes of some, diminished him, and the association it brought with an unpopular war and president tarnished his record. By contrast, Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to be vice president so he could be vice president. The second office was sufficiently robust to represent the life's ambition of a man who brought to that job a resume of diverse, high-level government experience that would rival or exceed that of virtually anyone who had ever served as president or vice president. Cheney's association with an unpopular war and president did not deter him from realizing his life's ambition. He has not been simply "standby equipment." And while people divide regarding whether he has done "good" or "evil," most observers assign him significant responsibility for what has been done during the last seven-plus years.

So how did it happen? How did the oxymoron of "vice presidential power" (Light 1984) become reality? And how did the "imperial vice president" become a familiar concept (Blumenthal 2007)?

I have been asked to trace the development of the vice presidency, beginning with the term of Walter F. Mondale through the present day, and to discuss the experience and temperament of the five vice presidents who served during this time, as well as their relationships and roles, in order to suggest some broad themes relevant to selecting the next vice presidential candidate. In so doing, I want to suggest that vice presidential role and power during this period has been the product of institutional development and a variety of factors that have arranged themselves in different ways with each successive president-vice president pair. Put differently, vice presidential role does not turn simply on being able to control any single factor but rather on the different ways in which a number of important influences are arranged or play out in each administration.

It is important to place the Mondale vice presidency in some historical context, and I will do so, although sketching with very broad strokes. In essence, the vice presidency grew, and moved, from around the beginning of the twentieth century. …

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