Did you know that we once had a vice-president named Tompkins? Next time I am in Scarsdale, N.Y., I am going to see if there is an adequate statue to its son, Vice-President Tompkins (1774-1825). As former governor of New York, he stood one heartbeat away from the presidency through James Monroe's two administrations. President Tompkins - it sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? The full name was Daniel D. Tompkins, in case you are not familiar with it. A lot of things about the American vice-presidency are odd. But it may be that that curious office is now coming into a new reign of importance after a fitful political sleep of 200 years.
Some of the men who drew up the Constitution in 1787 didn't think we needed a vice-president. After all, what would he do? Indeed, it has become one of our oldest problems. The framers were nebulous about it. As historian Clinton Rossiter explains in his book ''American Presidency,'' constitutional authorities are unanimous that the framers intended the vice-president to act as president if called to the White House but not actually to be president. But when the office of president did fall vacant for the first time by the passing of William Henry Harrison, the vice-president, John Tyler, took over the job lock, stock, and barrel - with opposition only from crusty old John Quincy Adams.
The problem was that the framers didn't trust the man in the street to pick a good president. They devoted a great deal of time trying to find a foolproof way of filling the office, if it became empty, with a man whose authority to govern would be recognized as legitimate.
''The subject has greatly divided this House,'' said James Wilson on the floor of the convention; ''it is, in truth, the most difficult of all on which we have to decide.'' The delegates took more than 30 votes before the Committee of Eleven came up with the general method finally laid out in the Constitution.
The solution was a bit hard on some of the men picked for the ambiguous job. John Adams, the first of them, complained that ''my country, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.'' Thomas Jefferson, his successor, described the ''second office'' as ''honorable and easy,'' compared with the ''splendid misery'' of the presidency. Several successors referred to the vice-presidency as ''His Superfluous Excellency.'' Attention centered on the subject in President Eisenhower's day when he was asked at a press conference by James Reston of the New York Times what role he thought an incapacitated president should have in picking a temporary successor.
''I would say this, Mr. Reston. It seems obvious to me that unless the man were acceptable to the presidential nominee, the vice-presidential nominee should immediately step aside. ... If there isn't some kind of general closeness of feeling between these two it is an impossible situation. ... I personally believe the vice-president of the United States should never be a nonentity. I believe he should be used. I believe he should have a very useful job.''
So now with the Democratic convention at San Francisco, and the Republican convention coming up, we see many new considerations of the vice-presidency. On the Republican side, George Bush is being cast for a major role and is inevitably contrasted with Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. Indeed, on the Democratic side the door has been flung open for a woman as vice-president. The vice-presidential office has changed as we watched. Some feel its power should be better handled by Congress, as under the parliamentary system. The obstacle was seen by Calvin Coolidge, who declared, ''It is because in their hour of timidity the Congress becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities that the President comes more and more to stand as the champion of the rights of the whole country.''
Everyone can see presidential institutions evolving, but where will they go? It is a strange office, different from being the prime minister of other governments. Said historian Henry Jones Ford:
''... American democracy has revived the oldest political institution of the race, the elective kingship. It is all there ... the precognition of the notables and the tumultuous choice of the freeman, only confirmed to modern conditions.''
Once again, with a kind of awe, we see the unique system at work.