Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: The evolution of the vice president in America
As the presidential race heats up, vice-presidential expert Joel Goldstein discusses how the role of the nation's No. 2 has changed over the decades.
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Not long after the election, President Garfield was shot and lingered for 80 days. Then Arthur became president.Skip to next paragraph
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Andrew Johnson was a border state Democrat who was put on the ticket with Lincoln for political reasons. John Tyler had nothing in common with the policies of the Harrison administration, which only lasted for a month.
Q: Yet all of these men landed in the White House after presidents died. When did the political system start taking the vice presidency seriously?
A: The system changed around 1940 when the president became more powerful, the national government looked to do more, and the presidential candidates began to take a role in selecting their running mates. From 1976 on, it became increasingly clear that it was good politics to chose someone who was a plausible successor.
Q: Who are some of your favorite obscure vice presidents?
A: Garret Hobart, an unlikely guy who was McKinley's first vice president, had been a New Jersey state legislator. At that time, vice presidents were very peripheral to the business of government, but Hobart became very friendly with McKinley, and he played something of a role. He was an aberration. There's also Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, who compared being vice president to a catatonic state: "He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him."
He also said "the only business of the vice-president is to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of health of the president." [Ironically, Marshall would be kept out of the loop when Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and couldn't function as president.]
Q: I know from watching "24" on TV that the vice president does have an unusual power under the 25th Amendment: he or she can vote with the Cabinet to declare the president to be incapacitated and then take over, at least temporarily. Could this allow the VP to launch a coup?
A: You could imagine a situation when the vice president and Cabinet think the president is pursuing disastrous policies, and they declare him disabled. If there's a contest between the president on one side and the vice president and Cabinet on the other, ultimately the House and Senate have to decide the issue. Movies and novels have picked up on this theme.
Q: Who was the most influential vice president?
A: Walter Mondale.
Before him, vice presidents thought the way to become powerful would be to have the president delegate them turf.