Flashbacks July 2004

Do We Really Need a Vice President?

John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his presidential running mate has ended weeks of speculation about which candidate he was leaning toward and what factors would enter into the selection process. Though some have commended Kerry's choice as creating a "balanced ticket," history indicates that such balancing acts do little to affect policy once the candidates take office. "The 'balanced ticket,'" wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the 1974 Atlantic, "is in any case a fraud on the public. It pretends that the Vice President's views 'balance' the views of the President when all our history testifies that they have no impact at all on the President." This, of course, begs the question: what exactly is the role of the Vice President? Two Atlantic articles from the mid-to-late twentieth century have considered this question, examining the history and nature of the office, and assessing its merits.

In "The Presidential Succession" (May 1947), the constitutional historian Lucius Wilmerding argued that the central problem of the vice presidency was, in the words of John Adams, that the Vice President "is nothing, but may be everything." The Vice President's nominal post as president of the Senate amounts to "an office without duties," Wilmerding argued, and as such, it "is not an office to inspire or satisfy the expectations of an ambitious mind." At the time, the office of the Vice President was only just beginning to assume tasks of any real responsibility or importance. Routine vice presidential attendance at Cabinet meetings had only recently become the norm. And in fact, not until Kennedy became president in 1961 would the Vice President even be afforded the distinction of receiving a space in the Executive Office Building. Wilmerding pointed out that a large number of politicians had been shrewd enough over the course of the office's history to decline the nomination or to refuse even to allow their names to be mentioned for consideration. As for the unlucky ones who ended up serving as Vice President, Wilmerding wrote:

John Adams declared it the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived—the only one in the world in which patience and firmness were useless. Jefferson found it the only office about which he was unable to decide whether he would rather have it or not have it—honorable and easy, it would give him philosophical evenings in the winter and rural delights in the summer, but was that enough? ... In 1900 Boss Quay and Boss Platt forced the nomination on an unwilling Roosevelt, thinking to destroy him forever politically.

Yet, Wilmerding wrote, if the office is unimportant, the officer certainly is not, for if the President becomes unable to perform his duties, then the Vice President will rise to the presidency. This, in Wilmerding's mind, represented the dilemma of the vice presidency:

How to fill an office which no one but a Throttlebottom can want, with a man of the highest respectability, well known, and of established reputation throughout the United States?

Given his assessment that the task was likely impossible, Wilmerding proposed doing away with the office altogether:

Let us bid adieu to our Vice Presidents and make provision, as the Founding Fathers originally intended to make provision, for the temporary filling of the office of the President in the event of a vacancy, and for the prompt holding of a new election. The machinery is extremely easy to devise.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing a quarter century later, agreed with Wilmerding. In "Is the Vice Presidency Necessary?" (May 1974), he noted that when Eisenhower was asked what major decisions of his Administration the Vice President participated in, he answered, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." The only big job handed to a Vice President in the first 185 years of the American presidency, Schlesinger argued, was when FDR made Henry Wallace the head of the Board of Economic Warfare. Otherwise, Schlesinger wrote, "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."

Presented by

Mary Ann Bronson is an Atlantic Web intern.

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