Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Heartbeat Away

By Alan Caruba

At a dinner for Nobel Prize winners in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said that those present constituted “probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.”

Given how poorly history is taught these days, it may come as a surprise that Thomas Jefferson was vice president to John Adams who had been vice president to George Washington. Adams tried to turn the vice president’s job into something substantial. The Constitution says only that the vice president shall preside over the Senate and, when necessary, shall cast a deciding vote in the event of a tie. His efforts to make something more of the job were defeated by the Senate of his day.

Jefferson heartily disliked Adams although later in their lives when both were out of public office they became good friends, corresponding daily with one another. Both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson survives.”

To pass the time as vice president, Jefferson wrote the Manual of Parliamentary Practice, a guide that is still consulted today. “A more tranquil and unoffending station could not have been found for me” said Jefferson at the time, but he had plans to be president and would become our third.

In an entertaining new book about our nation’s vice presidents, “The Warm Bucket Brigade”, Jeremy Lott relates that, “The first two vice presidents were elected president outright, and twelve more veeps would end up, by hook or by crook, in the White House running things. The vice presidency has supplied a third of our presidents. For that reason alone, it’s worth losing sleep over.”

Although the office of vice president has gained in political power in recent times, it was an innocuous position for much of the early history of the nation until the 20th century. As Lott describes it, “If we wanted to create an office to trade prestige for ambition—a drunk tank for the power mad—we’d probably concoct something like the modern vice presidency.”

In the modern era, the vice president’s office gave us Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, two relatively minor politicians before the death of the sitting president thrust them onto the world stage. Historians score both highly and it is interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was given the nomination to get rid of him politically. Truman was there to balance the ticket and because his fellow Senators respected his reputation for honesty and integrity.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was John F. Kennedy's vice president. Richard Nixon was Eisenhower's vice president on his way to becoming the only president forced to resign. Gerald Ford, Nixon's second vice president after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign, would succeed him into the office courtesy of the Watergate scandal. Those of us who lived through those years would probably prefer to forget them. They were exceedingly unpleasant, particularly since you had to live them one day at a time.

Prior to George W. Bush, his father, George H.W., served as Ronald Reagan's vice president before winning the job. Perhaps no vice president has had such influence as Dick Cheney, but he arrived with so much experience in Congress and inside the White House that few other men could rival his political gifts. We are not likely to see anyone like him again for a while.

No matter who you think won the vice president debate or who the robotic pundits of the mainstream media say won, it’s still useful to remember that whoever becomes the next vice president will, indeed, be a heartbeat away from being your next president.

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