Is the Vice Presidency Necessary?

No, argues historian Schlesinger. It is like the human appendix, a vestigial organ on the body politic. John Nance Garner called the office a lot of things, some of them not as polite as "a spare tire on the automobile of government."

We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy. He enters into a job of spectacular and, I believe, incurable frustration. He, like his predecessors, will receive those soothing presidential assurances that he, unlike his predecessors, will be given tasks of substance and responsibility. One can be absolutely certain that these shining prospects will disappear whenever he reaches out to grasp them. Mr. Nixon, even in his present feeble shape, will no more yield power to Mr. Ford than he yielded power to Mr. Agnew or than President Eisenhower yielded power to him ("What major decisions of your Administration has the Vice President participated in?" "If you give me a week, I might think of one"—Dwight D. Eisenhower, August 24, 1960) or than any President has ever yielded power to his Vice President.

It is a doomed office. No President and Vice President have trusted each other since Jackson and Van Buren. Mistrust is inherent in the relationship. The Vice President has only one serious thing to do: that is, to wait around for the President to die. This is hardly the basis for cordial and enduring friendships. Presidents see Vice Presidents as death's-heads at the feast, intolerable reminders of their own mortality. Vice Presidents, when they are men of ambition, suffer, consciously or unconsciously, the obverse emotion. Elbridge Gerry spoke with concern in the Constitutional Convention of the "close intimacy that must subsist between the President & vice-president." Gouverneur Morris commented acidly, "The vice president then will be the first heir apparent that ever loved his father."

At the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman noted that if the Vice President did not preside over the Senate, "he would be without employment." Sherman's observation was prophetic, except that the Vice President's constitutional employment is a farce. Mr. Agnew as Vice President, for example, never went near the Senate if he could help it. Early Vice Presidents of a philosophical bent filled their days by writing attacks on the power of the national government. Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolution as Vice President, Calhoun the South Carolina Exposition. Their successors have lacked a taste for political philosophy. Richard M. Johnson ran a tavern as Vice President. Thomas R. Marshall and Alben Barkley made jokes. But most Vice Presidents, especially in recent times, have lacked a taste for humor too.

But cannot Presidents give the Vice President serious work to do? Until rather recently they thought themselves constitutionally forbidden to do so. Most Presidents and most Vice Presidents have believed with Truman (in 1955) that the Vice President "is not an officer of the executive branch" and with Eisenhower (in 1963) that the Vice President "is not legally a part of the Executive branch and is not subject to direction by the President."

The notion of having the Vice President at Cabinet meetings, for example, is relatively new. In 1896 Theodore Roosevelt wrote that it would be desirable "to increase the power of the Vice-President . . . . It would be very well if he were given a seat in the Cabinet." But, when he became President himself after a brief interlude as Vice President, he did not give his own Vice President, Charles W. Fairbanks, a seat in the Cabinet or anywhere else. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall presided at Cabinet meetings when Wilson was at Versailles. But, since he regarded himself as a "member of the legislative branch," he questioned the propriety of doing so and carefully explained to the Cabinet that he was acting "in obedience to a request" and "in an unofficial and informal way." Harding was the first President to make his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, a regular at Cabinet meetings. Coolidge expected his own Vice President to follow this example; but Charles G. Dawes rejected any such entanglement with the executive as a "wrong principle" and in due course supported from his office on Capitol Hill farm legislation that his President opposed and eventually vetoed. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who from the time of his own vice presidential candidacy in 1920 had cherished the hope of making something of the office, re-established the idea of attendance at Cabinet meetings, and it became routine thereafter. Truman got Congress in 1949 to make the Vice President a member of the National Security Council by statute. But Vice Presidents continued to operate out of an office at the Hill. It was not till Kennedy became President that a Vice President was given space in the Executive Office Building.

Nor, despite ritualistic pledges at the start of each new term, have Presidents ever given real power to Vice Presidents. FDR did make Henry Wallace head of the Board of Economic Warfare—the only big job handed a Vice President in the 185 years of the American presidency—but this merely proved the embarrassment bound to arise when an agency chief who happened to be Vice President got into fights with powerful members of the President's Cabinet. Mr. Nixon as Vice President appointed himself the campaign hit man of the Eisenhower Administration and subsequently as President assigned the same delicate responsibility to Mr. Agnew, thereby making him, as Eugene McCarthy wittily said, "Nixon's Nixon." Mr. Nixon is evidently trying to stuff Mr. Ford into that slot today. This is hardly a promising development. If there is anything certain to ruin the vice presidency forever, it is the theory that the Vice President is the mandatory instrument for an administration's partisan rancor.

For the rest, the vice presidency is makework. Presidents spend time that might be put to far better use trying to figure out ways of keeping their Vice Presidents busy and especially of getting them out of town. The vice presidency remains, as John N. Garner said, "a spare tire on the automobile of government." As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, there is no there there.

Presented by

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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