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."

Until the Twelfth Amendment was adopted in 1804, Schlesinger explained, the vice presidency had been awarded to whomever received the second highest number of votes in the presidential election, thus ensuring that the second-in-command would be a leader in whom America's citizens had confidence. But when party politics began to interfere with the electoral college's proper functioning, problems arose.

In 1800, the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents [but] trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia…Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency.

To prevent a repeat of this, a constitutional amendment was passed, dictating that the presidency and the vice presidency would thereafter be voted on separately. This, Schlesinger argued, "sent the vice presidency into prompt decline."

The first two Vice Presidents had moved on directly to the presidency. After the amendment was enacted, the vice presidency became a resting place for mediocrities. Who can remember Burr's successors—George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Daniel D. Tompkins? For a generation the office of the Secretary of State became the stepping-stone to the presidency; thereafter Presidents were elected from anywhere except the vice presidency. In the 170 years since the Twelfth Amendment only one Vice President—Martin Van Buren—has advanced directly to the presidency by election.

Not only does the position represent a backwater without great prospects, Schlesinger argued, but the office itself can be unpleasantly demeaning. The string of indignities visited upon the Vice President began with the Constitutional Convention, where it was debated whether the Vice President should receive any salary or compensation. More recently, Lyndon Johnson had been refused air transportation to make an out-of-town public appearance, and Kennedy aides had turned down Johnson's request for a White House parking space. Schlesinger wrote,

The more gifted and ambitious the Vice President, the more acute his frustration—and the less his President is inclined to do to alleviate it. Everyone knows the humiliation that Eisenhower repeatedly visited on Nixon…even Johnson was a subdued and shrunken man by 1963. "It's like being naked in the middle of a blizzard with no one to even offer you a match to keep you warm—that's the vice presidency," said Hubert Humphrey in 1969, eight months after he had been released from confinement. "You are trapped, vulnerable and alone, and it does not matter who happens to be President."

Vice presidents, however, while willing to suffer indignities at the hands of their administrations, are less inclined to suffer the same from monthly publications. Both Hubert Humphrey, a former Vice President, and Gerald Ford, who was Vice President at the time, submitted letters in response to Schlesinger's article, critiquing Schlesinger's arguments and defending the vice presidency. Hubert Humphrey argued that the man makes the office, and suggested that perhaps the nature of the position would improve if more thought were put into the selection process:

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…. 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.

Ford likewise argued for the desirability of the office, observing that Thomas Jefferson had found "the Second Office of the government" to be "honorable and easy; the First... but a splendid misery."

"Our second Vice President appears to have enjoyed the vice presidency," Ford wrote. "So far, so do I."

—Mary Ann Bronson