The 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.
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