Contents | July 1974
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | July 1974
From Gerald Ford
On the Threshold of the White House
"There is no escape, it seems to me, from the conclusion that the vice presidency is not only a meaningless but a hopeless office." So wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the May Atlantic. He wrote against a backdrop of historic drama, at a time when the Congress was preparing impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, and Gerald Ford (our first "instant Vice President," as he describes himself here) stood on the threshold of the White House. The Atlantic asked the Vice President, all living former Vice Presidents and former candidates for the office, plus some interested observers, including a descendant of a Vice President (and two Presidents), to respond to Professor Schlesinger's argument. Gerald Ford's comments and those of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lead off the responses.
he vice presidency throughout our history has been an office that invites argument and defies definition. The vice presidency has stimulated more constitutional amendments than any other office, the latest (for which I voted) in 1965.
The continuing interest of two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures would seem to dispose of the academic question of whether the vice presidency is really necessary. In an era of nuclear parity, of course it is.
Having little use for kings, our Founding Fathers nonetheless knew that monarchy's main virtue is assured continuity. The Roman republic, which was the best model they had in 1787, was at last brought down by civil struggles over succession. So the Founding Fathers invented and gave a Latin title to the office of Vice President. But Ben Franklin suggested he might better be addressed as "Your Superfluous Excellency."
In finding something for the Vice President to do besides stand and wait, the Founding Fathers violated their own fundamental rule of separation of powers. The Vice President is a constitutional hybrid.
Alone among federal officials he stands with one foot in the legislative branch and the other in the executive. The Vice President straddles the constitutional chasm which circumscribes and checks all others. He belongs both to the President and to the Congress, even more so under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, yet he shares power with neither.
Whenever I assert that I am my own man, it's ironic that everyone assumes it to be a declaration of independence from the White House and not from the Capitol as well. Last December 6, minutes after I ceased to be Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and became the fortieth Vice President of the United States, a friend half sadly said to me: "Well, now you have exchanged real power for false prestige."
I have pondered that during my months of on-the-job training as the nation's first "instant Vice President." It is true that I am now surrounded everywhere by a clutch of Secret Service agents, reporters and cameramen, and assorted well-wishers. When I travel I am greeted by bands playing "Hail, Columbia" and introduced to audiences with great solemnity instead of just as "my good friend Jerry Ford."
Personally I prefer my old style of solo flying, and fondly look back on the solitude of a commercial airline seat. But I'm told a Vice President has no choice on the prestige bit.
As for power, all I have really lost is my one vote in the House. Congressional leadership, especially of the minority, does not depend on power but on persuasion, plus a reputation for fairness and truth. I hope that is still intact.
From his retirement Thomas Jefferson observed that "the Second Office of the government is honorable and easy; the First is but a splendid misery." Our second Vice President appears to have enjoyed the vice presidency; so far, so do I.
I have not found it easy, but these are not easy times. After twenty-five years in the House and five defeats for the distinguished office of Speaker, I like the challenge of my new job. It is enough like that of Minority Leader to fit into comfortably; different and difficult enough to charge up my competitive batteries.
At the Republican Convention of 1960 I gingerly entertained the flattering notion of friends that a Nixon-Ford ticket would be a winner. When that draft diminished to a flat calm the prospect of becoming Vice President never again seriously crossed my mind until President Nixon telephoned me at home on the evening of October 12, 1973.
I don't recall that he gave me any choice, but I accepted.
Next followed two long months of intensive inquiry by Senate and House committees considering my confirmation, during which they "investigated and questioned the nominee's public and private life to a degree far beyond that of any person holding public office in America today." I was repeatedly asked what I would do if fate made me President. My friends in the news media continue to quiz me daily on my concept of the proper functions of the presidency.
This is understandable, for even under normal circumstances any Vice President is a potential President, whether or not he covets that "splendid misery." But hardly anyone has bothered to ask me what I think of the vice presidency, the office I have and expect to hold until January 20, 1977.
Some say the Vice President does whatever the President wants him to; others that the first and second offices are intrinsically incompatible. Both conclusions are unrealistic at this—forgive me—point in time.
I see the vice presidency in the present tense and in pragmatic terms. History is not very helpful in delineating the role of a Vice President, beyond presiding over the Senate (which I enjoy), breaking a Senate tie (which hasn't happened yet), and assuring presidential succession (which I hope won't happen).
Every vice presidency in my memory has been as different as the Vice Presidents I have known: Truman, Barkley, Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, Agnew. Among the variables involved are the degree of intimacy, past and present, between a President and Vice President; their respective styles and attitudes; their relative rapport with Congress and the news media; the particular strengths and political skills which a Vice President can contribute to the Administration team, and such independent constituencies as each may have in their party or the country as a whole.
In my case, the unique manner of my selection makes another difference. I am the only Vice President for whom no voter ever marked a ballot. On the other hand, no other Vice President ever took office with the seal of approval of 84 percent of the opposite party's congressional majority. Even more miraculous, not a single vote was cast against me by a member of my own party in the Congress. (To be honest, my Democratic friends made it perfectly clear they were voting for me, not my politics. But while love lasts I will reciprocate.)
My first and foremost mission as Vice President from the outset is to be "a ready conciliator and calm communicator between the White House and Capitol Hill, between the reelection mandate of the Republican President and the equally emphatic mandate of the Democratic 93rd Congress." This has turned into a much tougher task than I envisioned when I made that pledge last November 1. Lines have been drawn by both sides. I have learned that my counsel must be sought and my mediation solicited. Happily, my two-way hot line is still in use.
I realize my failures in this role are likely to get more attention than my successes. But I consider the effort of primary importance because I am sure the American people do not want their government deadlocked. National paralysis would pose a deadly danger to our image abroad, possibly to our safety.
The first specific charge the President gave me as Vice President, one I embraced enthusiastically as my own, was to help him and his able Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, in defending the Administration's defense budget against both immediate cuts and long-range erosion. This was my special concern for twelve years on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, but my deep personal conviction that weakness leads to war goes back to Pearl Harbor.
Our negotiating posture of strength must be maintained if the hopeful beginnings we have made in strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union and in defusing the Vietnamese and Middle East time bombs are to bring about a permanent peace. Of the many legitimate and pressing demands on our federal budget, the highest priority is always survival.
Since the jet age began and particularly since President Eisenhower found his Vice President to be an effective emissary abroad, Vice Presidents have done a lot of foreign traveling. I know how instructive this can be from my fascinating journey to the People's Republic of China with the late House Majority Leader Hale Boggs two years ago.
But globetrotting has a fairly low priority for me as Vice President in 1974, not only because Henry Kissinger is such a hard act to follow, but also because I believe the domestic needs of my country and my party demand my full energies and attention.
I have read several recent columns (some of my best friends are pundits) to the effect that in flying all over the country making political speeches I am behaving as if I were running for President. They forget that I have been doing this for years, trying to help Republicans get elected or reelected to Congress and other offices. Having chaired two Republican conventions I am nationally known as an advocate of party unity, and maybe I am too soft a touch when Republicans call for help. I would be doing this even if I had not suddenly found myself Vice President.
Still, the role of a Vice President being sort of deputy leader of his political party has solid antecedents from the time of Jackson-Van Buren to that of Eisenhower-Nixon. Most of my predecessors whose names we can remember without an almanac were strong party spokesmen who continued to play prominent political roles after taking office. No wonder President Nixon encourages my efforts to rally Republicans and unify them for the crucial November showdown.
I deeply believe in the two-party system. It fosters competition, checks excesses, lets off dissident steam, allows greater participation by people in our government process. But to work well, majority and minority must remain in reasonable balance, as we learned in 1935 and 1965, and as our ancestors learned during Reconstruction. Legislative dictatorship is no better than executive tyranny.
The two-party system is in trouble. I would be blind not to see the danger to my party, and to that system, in the public's disillusionment over Watergate and with politics in general. I feel strongly that the Republican Party and its principles must remain a viable force in the future of America.
During my confirmation, Senator Claiborne Pell [Democrat, Rhode Island] asked me how partisan I would be as Vice President of all the people. I replied that I would be just as partisan as my predecessors, such as Vice President Truman and Vice President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey. Senator James Allen [Democrat, Alabama] then wondered if this were inconsistent with my pledge to bridge the gap between a Republican Administration and a Democratic Congress.
A fair question. The answer depends on style. I think I know the invisible line beyond which partisan fervor should not (but sometimes does) carry a campaigner. My own Democratic opponents have so testified. It has been my experience for twenty-five years that the best rule in politics, as elsewhere, is the Golden Rule.
Maybe this is the missing ingredient in American public life. While we are preoccupied with drafting new election reform laws and tougher campaign spending statutes, the fact remains that ordinary decency, common courtesy, and consideration for the rights and opinions of others can neither be legislated nor enforced.
But candidates and their campaign-followers can be measured against the age-old standard of the Golden Rule, and I commend it.
To reinvigorate the Republican Party and assist Republican candidates whenever I can; to help sustain a defense posture that advances America's stature and the prospects for lasting peace; and to promote intelligent compromise and candid communication in strife-torn Washington—these are my top priority missions for 1974 as I see them now. If they are not enough to keep a Vice President busy, I'm sure the President will think of more.
—Vice President of the United States
From Hubert H. Humphrey
Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has posed the question, "Is the vice presidency necessary?" His conclusion, in a brilliant article tracing the office of Vice President from the days of the Constitutional Convention to the present, is that it is not. My response is, "Yes, it is." Let me give you my reasons.
From the archives:
"My Father" (November 1966)
Hubert H. Humphrey's memoir of his father tells much about a vanishing kind of America. By Hubert Humphrey
First, the vice presidency provides an unencumbered, clear-cut method of succession in case the President is disabled, cannot perform his duties, or dies in office. Since eight of our Vice Presidents have succeeded Presidents who died in office, it is my judgment that we need some prompt means of presidential succession, so that government can proceed in an orderly manner and the inevitable confusion and possible chaos that could come from any prolonged delay in filling the presidential office can be avoided.
Second, the Vice President is a nationally elected officer. To be sure, it is, as Professor Schlesinger observes, an office that is tied to the presidency. The President and Vice President are elected at the same time on the same ballot. The citizen votes for both when he votes for one. But the fact is that the Vice President is elected, not appointed. He is elected in a national election and, therefore, is the second highest elected officer in the national government. And, in being elected rather than appointed, his independence from the Congress and others who might be involved in another type of selection process is preserved.
The fact that in the past the office of the Vice President has not always been occupied by men of outstanding capability or strong character in no way should prejudice us against the necessity of having the office itself. What this demonstrates is that sufficient care has not been taken in the selection of a Vice President by the respective national political parties. This can be remedied by political parties recognizing that in the selection of a Vice President, they are in fact choosing a possible President.
Then it should be added that, while there were many who have occupied the office of Vice President whom historians call mediocre or less, there were some chosen by the system Professor Schlesinger condemns who were men of great ability and competence, and others who at least gave stability and a sense of direction to the nation.
With the death of James Garfield, President Chester Arthur provided constructive leadership and established a commendable record. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, during Woodrow Wilson's disability, was a trusted lieutenant who performed his duties responsibly and honorably. Upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge fulfilled the duties of the presidency. To be sure, he was not a dynamic leader, but he was honorable, honest, and in his time commanded the respect of the nation.
When President Franklin Roosevelt died, it was Harry Truman, the man from Missouri, whom many of the intellectuals of his day considered to be inadequate and ill-equipped for the presidency, who proved himself to be a strong President and one of our great leaders. At a critical point in World War II and at a time when the structure of world peace was being created in the form of the United Nations, it was imperative for our country to have a prompt and smooth transition from the presidency of Roosevelt to that of Truman. The constitutional provision for a Vice President assured that a smooth succession to the presidency could and did take place.
I wonder whether those who feel that we ought to abolish the office of Vice President have faced up to what would have transpired in America in those critical days of World War II, when great decisions had to be made to bring about the end of the war as well as to start the process of peacemaking, if there had been special elections with delay and partisan bickering at that critical hour. No, the system worked well. Harry Truman became President and fulfilled the duties of that office with dignity and honor. He gave America assurance of direction and leadership.
Then again, when the assassin's bullet took the life of John Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson effectively took over the reins of government and carried on. The terrible shock of the tragic death of a much-loved President could have paralyzed the nation and, indeed, precipitated a serious constitutional crisis. But it was averted, because our system provided for an orderly transition of the executive power—from the hands of a slain President to the strong hands of a Vice President prepared to take on the duties of the executive office.
The office of Vice President has changed considerably in the twentieth century, particularly since the 1930s, with many new responsibilities assigned to the person who holds this office. It can be argued that the vice presidency doesn't necessarily prepare anyone for the presidency; it also can be argued that those who are elected to the presidency are frequently not prepared for it either. Some Presidents in the past had little or no experience in government. A Vice President, being a part of the government, is closer to what is transpiring than someone selected from the outside.
Modern Presidents have given greater opportunities to their Vice Presidents—and I don't just mean that a Vice President frequently is the President's political man—even though that within itself surely represents some preparation for the office. After all, Presidents have to run for office. They run on a political platform. They are political men, and frequently they are partisan. There's not a thing wrong with having a Vice President assume some of the political duties.
To be the President's spokesman on national issues acquaints the Vice President with the nation and with the problems that confront our people. Furthermore, it gives the people an opportunity to get a measure of the man, and it brings the Vice President into much closer touch with what's happening, both in Congress and in the country.
So I am unimpressed by the argument used by Professor Schlesinger that Mr. Agnew was Nixon's Nixon. So what? Henry Wallace was at times Roosevelt's Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson was at times Kennedy's Kennedy. And I am proud to say that I was a good deal of the time Johnson's Johnson. It is part of the political process. We don't appoint Presidents. We do not have some elite personage or royalty in the White House. Our Presidents are elected. They run on a partisan ballot. They are partisans. They have strongly held views on political issues. The fact that a Vice President may take over some of the responsibilities of the President in the political field is not to condemn him but rather to recommend him.
The past history of the vice presidency has little relevance to the present date. To be sure, the office is an awkward one. To be sure, it is vested with more responsibility than it has authority, but that within itself is desirable. There can only be one President at a time. The executive office cannot be one filled with a multitude of voices. There has to some sense of direction, a policy, a program. And the confusion that did code from having a President and a Vice President on different political wavelengths, going in different directions, surely would not be helpful to the nation.
But, when a Vice President succeeds a President, he is at liberty to pursue his own course, to design an administration in his own image, to carry out the programs that he believes the nation needs. He is under no obligation, when he succeeds to the office of President, to be a rubber stamp to what went before.
Nevertheless, while a person is Vice President, during the time that the President is active and on the job, he should and usually does carry out the wishes of the President and the administration. He is a member of the administration. His duty is to do his level best to see that the results of the election which produced a President and a Vice President are reflected in national policy. He is not expected to be a prima donna, carrying out his own program regardless of the will of the electorate or the direction of the President.
Let us examine for a moment the requirements of the office of President, one of the most unusual and unique ever designed by the mind of man. The demands are unbelievable. The person who serves in this capacity is much more than a prime minister or head of state. He combines the responsibilities of both. Yet he is also an administrator and executive officer, a commander in chief and head of his party. He is the nation's leading spokesman in the area of foreign affairs. Surely, if he could share some of his responsibilities with the Vice President, who is his partner in an administration, it might relieve the President of duties and burdens which would permit him to do a better job of governing and giving direction to the nation.
Many of the social responsibilities of the President could be handed over to the Vice President. Many of the formalities that come with the visitation of foreign dignitaries can and should be given to the Vice President. The Vice President can be the eyes and ears of a busy and closely guarded President generally confined to the environs of the White House and the Executive Office.
A Vice President can help strengthen the federal system by acting as a liaison between federal and state governments. He can share and give direction to a number of ad hoc councils, committees, and commissions that are established by the President who is seeking answers to difficult questions and national problems. A Vice President can be effective and helpful in promoting legislation and keeping open the lines of communication between a busy President and Congress. He can reconcile differences and prevent unnecessary confrontation and struggle. President Johnson entrusted many such responsibilities to me during the period I served as Vice President.
Yes, the office of Vice President is needed. It is necessary. It has contributed significantly to the nation. It is absurd to cast it aside merely because in recent days it has been touched by scandal and because in the past there were men of mediocrity or less who were selected as Vice President and did not live up to the standards that we expected of them. We also have had some weak and ineffective Presidents who have disappointed us, but Professor Schlesinger is not asking, "Is the office of President necessary?"
Vice President of the United States, 1965-1969
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1974; On the Threshold of the the White House; Volume 234, No. 1, page 63.