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The vice presidency: What does it mean?
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Forsyth County News

For many weeks, speculation had been rampant on who would be selected as vice presidential running mates. The announcements of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin brought that speculation to an end, but then initiated a torrent of words.

What did they bring to or detract from the ticket? Where were their vulnerabilities? How could they be exploited? How would they be involved during the campaign? In other words, politics as usual.

But what does being vice president of the United States really mean? Let’s go back into history and take a look.

We have had 42 presidents (43 if you count the two separated terms of Grover Cleveland). Of these, 14 had served as vice president prior to assuming the office of president.

Five were elected on their own (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). Nixon was the only one who did not move directly from the office of vice president to president, since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson served in between.

Nine came into office unexpectedly. Four were due to the death of the president from natural causes (John Tyler upon the death of William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore upon the death of Zachary Taylor, Calvin Coolidge on the death of Warren G. Harding and Harry S. Truman upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt).

Four were due to assassinations (Andrew Johnson upon Abraham Lincoln’s death, Chester A. Arthur upon James Garfield’s death, Teddy Roosevelt upon William McKinley’s death and Lyndon Johnson upon Kennedy’s death).

One, Gerald Ford, came into the presidency upon a resignation (Nixon’s) from office. Of these nine, five left office after finishing out the term of their predecessor and four who ran for re-election made it for one additional term.

It’s an interesting exercise to try to name the presidents of the United States in sequence, starting from today and going back in time. But a much more challenging and frustrating task is trying the same with the vice presidents. Except for those who made it to president, they disappear from view.

The Constitution is quite specific on the duties and responsibilities of the president. But that article that deals with the executive branch is silent on those of the vice president with one notable exception.

Article II, Section 1 specifies that, like the president, the vice president shall be chosen for four years. It established the Electoral College to select both, but unlike present day politics, where the president and vice president run on the same ticket, the primary vote-getter in the Electoral College would be named president, and the individual with the second highest number would be named vice president.

Consequently, in the early days, the views of president and vice president might not only be different, they could be destructively counterproductive.

Is it any wonder that, given the lack of specific duties assigned to the vice president, most presidents seem to have ignored their number twos?

If the original procedure still applied today, given the incredibly strident party politics we now experience, you can be sure that the vice president would be assigned an office in a janitor’s closet somewhere on the north slopes of Alaska.

The only specific mention in that section relating to the duties of the vice president comes in the following statement: “In case of the removal of the president from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the vice president ... .”

The other constitutional reference to the duties of the vice president comes in Article I, dealing with the legislative branch. Section 3 states that: “The Vice President … shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

From time to time, this has placed the vice president in a position of power — but, that’s it.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution (1808) changed the election process by providing for separate votes for president and vice president and awarding the offices to the individuals who have the highest votes in each category. Since today they run as a team, this would seem to assure that they will be from the same party.

Subsequently, Amendments 20 (1933) and 25 (1967) addressed issues relating to election timing and succession, as well as designation of a new vice president in the case where the vice president assumes the office of president.

Clearly, with one critical exception, the office of vice president is only what the president wishes to make it. And that exception, where the vice president is unexpectedly elevated into the office of president has happened nine times in our history — or in 20 percent of the presidencies.

Some vice presidents have been relegated to ceremonial rolls. Others have been ignored. A small number, as is the current case with Dick Cheney, have wielded substantial power, particularly in specified areas.

Many comments have been made over the years about the vice presidency. Probably the most charitable and realistic is that “it’s only a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

On a more humorous note, Will Rodgers stated that: ‘The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, ‘How is the president?’”

And then there is the famous quote by John Nance Gardner, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, to the effect that: “the vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit,” although there is some question as to which bodily fluid he actually referred.

Perhaps Dan Quayle, vice president under George H. W. Bush, summed it up best when, with a typical “Quaylism” he said: “One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that is ‘to be prepared.’”

There is probably a good lesson to be learned here. Two factors need to be considered in evaluating the impact of the vice president on a party ticket.

The first is the issue of qualifications — the “what if” question. Is this the person you would be happy with as chief executive and commander in chief of the nation?

The other relates less to the vice president and more to the personality of the president. Is this an individual who will use the services that the vice president can provide — who has enough intellect to encourage and benefit from differing views and enough confidence to permit the vice president some degree of latitude of action?

If not, the choice of vice president becomes solely a contingency issue — one which, if history repeats itself, will have four chances in five of being of little significance. But that one out of five is a biggie.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at