Magazine article New York Times Upfront

'The Most Insignificant Office': John Adams Didn't Think Much of His Job as Vice President. but Recent Presidents Are Giving Their Understudies a Lot More to Do

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

'The Most Insignificant Office': John Adams Didn't Think Much of His Job as Vice President. but Recent Presidents Are Giving Their Understudies a Lot More to Do

Article excerpt

Bill Richardson, New Mexico's Governor, is already asking people if he should accept the job if it's offered. Senator John Edwards said he wouldn't take it--but that was when he was running for President. Gen. Wesley K. Clark is said to covet the job so much that he no sooner ended his own presidential bid than he endorsed Senator John Kerry, the likely presidential nominee.

The job in question is the vice-presidential spot on the Democratic ticket, and leading Democrats have begun the process of quiet jockeying, modest flattery, and studied indifference that they hope makes them Kerry's choice as running mate. It's the traditional vice-presidential mating dance--a complicated ritual that breaks out every four years among contenders in the party not currently in the White House.

For much of American history, the vice presidency has been more a target for jokes than a sought after job. George Clinton, Thomas Jefferson's Vice President, called his job a "respectable retirement," after 18 years as Governor of New York. In 1848, Senator Daniel Webster turned down an offer to be Zachary Taylor's vice-presidential running mate: "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead." And John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Vice President for his first two terms (1933-41), said the job wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit, or something cruder.

But the importance of the vice presidency has since increased, and in the 20th century, a significant number of Vice Presidents moved on to the Oval Office. Some ascended after the death of the President: Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, alter William McKinley's assassination; Calvin Coolidge in 1923, after the death of Warren G. Harding; Harry Truman in 1945, after FDR's death; and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, after John F. Kennedy's assassination. (All four were later elected to full terms on their own.)


More recently, Richard Nixon, who served under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan's No. 2, were later elected President on their own. And Gerald Ford became President after Nixon's resignation in 1974.

In the early days of the United States, the Vice President was not a running mate, but a rival: The Constitution made the Vice President--who presides over the Senate and breaks tie votes--the candidate who finished second in the presidential election. This meant the President and Vice President would very likely be opponents, as was the case after the election to succeed George Washington in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson became Vice President after losing the presidency to John Adams. The system in use today--the joint election of the President and Vice President--took effect in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment.

Even after that change, few Presidents shared significant power with their Vice Presidents, who were often relegated to ceremonial duties.

In recent years, however, the office has gained more importance and respect. Al Gore, who served under Bill Clinton, and now Vice President Dick Cheney, have been among the most active and powerful in history. (President Bush has said that Cheney will again be his running mate on the Republican ticket this year.)

Presidential candidates have chosen vice-presidential candidates to provide balance (a Northern presidential candidate might seek a Southern running mate); to offset a perceived weakness (Bush, who had little foreign policy or Washington experience, chose Cheney, with a long Washington resume, including Secretary of Defense); to help win a key state (Kennedy chose Johnson in 1960 to help win LBJ's home state of Texas): or to make a statement, or even history (Democrat Walter Mondale chose Representative Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, the first woman to run for Vice President).

Kerry could announce his choice as soon as April or May, or wait until the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.