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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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He realized that presidents weren't going to give the vice president significant things to do. Presidents were more likely to give vice presidents menial things that would end up diminishing the vice president and eating up his time.

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Mondale said he'd like to be an across-the-board senior adviser to the president, take on missions where the president thought he'd be helpful, and not have any ongoing program to run. That's what he and President Carter agreed to, and it worked well.

He created a model for other vice presidents.
Q: Who stands out among the least effective vice presidents?
A: Nelson Rockefeller, President Ford's vice president, was one of the most powerful people in the country --  governor of New York for four terms and leader of the eastern wing of the Republican Party.But the vice president role didn't fit him because he never figured out how to operate as vice president. In some ways he was obtuse, proposing things that were totally out of step with what President Ford was trying to do. He wasn't a very good follower.

Q: Who else had a troubled time as vice president?
Lyndon Johnson brutalized Hubert Humphrey, and Harry Truman didn't know about the Manhattan Project before Roosevelt died. Nixon hated Spiro Agnew. Chester Arthur wrote a letter to a newspaper questioning President Garfield's integrity, saying he hadn't been square.

And then there was Richard Nixon. At a press conference, President Eisenhower was asked about major ideas he'd heard from Nixon. "If you give me a week, I might think of one," he said. "I don't remember."
Q: Yikes. Well, at least Nixon didn't shoot anyone. Would you remind us who did?
A: Aaron Burr was the only vice president other than Dick Cheney to shoot somebody while in office. 

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.


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