'The most insignificant office'? John Adams didn't think much of the vice presidency. But this year, Barack Obama and John McCain have chosen running mates who could determine the outcome in November.One percent: That's the portion of American voters who typically say vice-presidential candidates influence their decisions in a presidential election, according to Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.
This year, however, may be a different story: The November election looks like it's going to be close, and the Biden/Palin vice-presidential matchup could be among the deciding factors.
There are two key reasons why the voters--and the media--are paying more attention to the candidates at the bottom of the ticket this year.
First, both running mates seem to have been chosen with an eye toward addressing perceived shortcomings at the top of their respective tickets.
Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, 65, has spent 36 years in the Senate, which may alleviate voter concerns about Barack Obama's short time in Washington.
John McCain has plenty of experience, but hasn't generated the excitement on the campaign trail that Obama has. Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, 44, the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket, seems to be providing plenty of excitement in her first weeks as his running mate, especially among conservative Republicans who have been lukewarm about McCain.
WHAT THE FOUNDERS THOUGHT
Second, the role of Vice President has changed in recent years: By all accounts, Presidents Bush and Clinton gave Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and A1 Gore more power and influence than any Vice Presidents in American history.
In fact, the importance of the No. 2 spot today would astound the Founding Fathers. Aside from taking over for a President who can no longer serve, the Constitution assigns the Vice President the responsibility for presiding over the Senate and breaking tie votes. Other than that, the job wasn't given much thought, according to Stanley N. Katz, a constitutional historian at Princeton University.
But the Vice President has always been--literally--a heartbeat away from the presidency, and many of these understudies have ended up stepping into the lead role.
Of the 46 Vice Presidents since 1789, 14--nearly a third--have become President. Nine got the job without being elected, when the President died in office or resigned. (See chart, p. 8.) Theodore Roosevelt, for example, became President after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901; John Tyler got the top job in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia on a cold, snowy Inauguration Day and died after only a month in office; and in 1974, Gerald Ford moved up when Richard Nixon, facing impeachment over the Watergate scandal, became the first President to resign.
Long before Jon Stewart and Jay Leno, the vice presidency was a target of jokes--often from Vice Presidents. John Adams, the first to hold the job, called it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." George Clinton, who became Thomas Jefferson's Vice President in 1805, called the job "a respectable retirement" after 18 years as New York's Governor.
In 1848, Senator Daniel Webster turned down an offer to be Zachary Taylor's running mate, saying, "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead." And John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Vice President for his first two terms (1933-41), said the job wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit. (Actually, he used a cruder word.)
RUNNER-UP TO RUNNING MATE
In the early days of the United States, the Vice President wasn't a running mate but a runner-up: The candidate who finished second in the presidential election became the Vice President. This meant that the President and Vice President were political rivals, as was the case in the election to succeed George Washington in 1796: Thomas Jefferson became Vice President after losing the presidential election to John Adams. The system in use today--in which the President and Vice President run on a single ticket--took effect with the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804.
Even with that change, until recently few Presidents have shared significant power with their Vice Presidents, who often were left to perform mostly ceremonial duties. (Even John McCain has joked that a Vice President has two main jobs: checking on the health of the President and attending funerals of foreign leaders.)
The question is whether the new influence the office has earned during the tenures of Al Gore and Dick Cheney will extend to Joe Biden or Sarah Palin next January.
What Biden has going for him is a reputation as one of the best-informed lawmakers in Washington on international affairs. On the downside, he's known for being long winded and prone to gaffes on the campaign trail.
Palin's biggest assets are her freshness and apparent ability to connect with large numbers of women. Her biggest negative: Her limited experience, particularly in foreign affairs, raises questions about her readiness to serve, should the need arise, as Commander in Chief--a concern given that McCain is 72 and a cancer survivor.
Whether it's Obama or McCain who occupies the Oval Office next year, this election will produce a historic first: America's first black President or its first female Vice President. (Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was the first female candidate for Vice President; she ran, and lost, with Walter Mondale on the Democratic ticket in 1984.)
Both Biden, with his blue-collar roots, and Palin, a "hockey mom" with five children, are expected to campaign in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in an effort to win over working-class voters, many of whom supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Whoever winds up as No. 2 might reflect on what's changed--and what hasn't--since 1789, when John Adams said: "I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything."
(John McCain's running mate)
POLITICAL OFFICE: Governor of Alaska, elected 2006; Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, 1996-2002; Wasilla City uncil, 1992-96
EXPERIENCE: TV sports reporter, 1987-89; co-owner of a commercial fishing operation, 1988-2007; owner, sport-vehicle rental, business, 1994-97; chairwoman, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 2003-04
BORN: Feb. 11, 1964, in Sandpoint, Idaho
EDUCATION: B.S., University of Idaho, 1987
FAMILY: Married Todd Palin, 1988; sons Track, 19, and Trig Paxson Van, 6 months; daughters Bristol, 17, Willow, 14, and Piper, 7. Private First Class Track Palin is going to Iraq with the Army's 25th Infantry Division in the next few weeks.
RELIGION: Protestant (Assemblies of God)
BACKGROUND: A self-described "hockey room" who likes to fish and hunt, Palin is the youngest person and the first woman to serve as Governor of Alaska. Palin raised taxes on oil-companies in the state and oversaw the enactment of a plan to build a natural-gas pipeline from Alaska to the "lower 48." In July, an investigation was opened into whether Palin had tried to use her power to get her sister's ex-husband fired as a state trooper. She has attracted a great deal of attention to the Republican ticket, but her lack of experience in foreign affairs has become an issue.
JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.
(Barack Obama's running mate)
POLITICAL OFFICE: U.S. Senator from Delaware; elected 1972; re-elected 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996, and 2002
EXPERIENCE: Attorney (in Wilmington), 1968-72; Councilman, New Castle County, Delaware, 1970-72
BORN: Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania
EDUCATION: B.A., University of Delaware, 1965; J.D., Syracuse University College of Law, 1968
FAMILY: Married (2nd wife) Jill Jacobs, 1977; sons Joseph (Beau), 39, and Robert, 38 (with first wife Neilia, who died in 1972 in a car accident with their infant daughter Naomi); daughter Ashley, 27. Captain Beau Biden, a Judge Advocate General in the Delaware National Guard and the state's Attorney General, has been told to prepare for duty in Iraq Later this year.
RELIGION: Roman Catholic
BACKGROUND: First elected to the Senate from Delaware at age 29, Biden is now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a respected Democratic voice on foreign affairs. Biden has said he regrets his 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq invasion, and has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration's conduct of the war. His bid for the 1988 presidential nomination ended after he made a speech using passages from a British politician's speech. His 2008 campaign for the top spot failed to take off.
Review the Constitutional role of the Vice President (to become President if the President is unable to serve, to preside over the Senate and break tie votes).
* Why do you think the Constitution's authors did not give the Vice President more power?
* Why have Vice Presidents become more important and powerful in recent years?
What does the choice of a running mate say about the values and decision-making abilities of a presidential candidate?
Write a letter to John Adams, the first Vice President, explaining the importance of the vice presidency today, and why it is no longer (if it ever was) "the most insignificant office."
Defend or refute: Media coverage of the vice-presidential contenders has been a distraction from the more important coverage of the presidential candidates.
Vice Presidents have described the position as "a respectable retirement," "not worth a bucket of warm spit," and "the most insignificant office." Do you agree with them? Why might they have felt that way?
Until 1804, Vice Presidents were the second-place finishers in the presidential election. If that were the case in 2008, do you think McCain and Obama would be able to work together to bring about the change that they both talk about? What differences would they have to resolve?
How important are the vice-presidential candidates to you in this election? What do you think of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden and their qualifications to be Vice President? What about their qualifications to be President?
Every Vice President (except John Adams, Chester A. Arthur, Henry A. Wallace, and Garret Hobart) previously served as a Congressman, Senator, or Governor.
History of the vice presidency, from the Senate
(1) According to the Constitution, which of the following is not a responsibility of the Vice President?
a Presiding over the Senate
b Breaking tie votes in the Senate
c Serving as the President if the elected President becomes unable to do so
d acting as the Speaker of the House
(2) How many Vice Presidents have there been in American history?
(3) Before the 12th Amendment went into effect, the President and Vice President
a were often political rivals.
b often did not know each other.
c worked completely independently.
d shared responsibility as Commander in Chief.
(4) Which of the following statements is true regarding what presidential candidates took for in a running mate?
a They often choose someone who has opposing views on critical issues.
b They always choose someone younger and with less stature on the world stage.
c They may choose someone with experience in an area in which the candidate is perceived as weak.
d They never choose someone who has previously run for President.
(5) 14 Vice Presidents have become President
a without being elected.
b after their terms had ended.
c following the death of the President.
d during times of war or economic depression.
(6) How do Joe Biden and Sarah Palin "balance" what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Barack Obama and John McCain?
(1) What did John Adams mean when he said: "I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything"? How does that statement reflect the importance of the office?
(2) Were you surprised to hear that many past Vice Presidents have viewed their office so negatively? How do you view the vice presidency and its rote in American politics?
QUIZ 1: PAGE TE 5
(1) (d) Acting as Speaker of the House
(2) (c) 46
(3) (a) were often political rivals.
(4) (c) They may choose someone with prior knowledge or success in an area in which the candidate may be perceived as weak.
(5) (a) without being erected.
(6) Palin appears to women and social. conservatives, and Biden has vast experience in international affairs.
With reporting by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Adam Nagourney, and Todd S. Purdum of The New York Times.
Who Got Promoted? Of the 46 Vice Presidents since 1789, 14 have become President. Nine got the job on short notice, without being elected, when a President died in office or resigned. VICE PRESIDENT/PRESIDENT TERM HOW HE BECAME PRESIDENT JOHN ADAMS/GEORGE WASHINGTON 1789-97 Elected in 1796 THOMAS JEFFERSON/JOHN ADAMS 1797-1801 Elected in 1800 MARTIN VAN BUREN/ANDREW 1833-37 Elected in 1836 JACKSON JOHN TYLER/WILLIAM H. HARRISON 1841 Harrison died in 1841 MILLARD FILLMORE/ZACHARY 1849-50 Taylor died in 1850 TAYLOR ANDREW JOHNSON LINCOLN/ 1865 Lincoln was assassinated ABRAHAM in 1865 CHESTER A. ARTHUR/JAMES A. 1881 Garfield was assassinated GARFIELD in 1881 THEODORE ROOSEVELT/WILLIAM 1901 McKinley was assassinated MCKINLEY in 1901 CALVIN COOLIDGE/WARREN G. 1921-23 Harding died in 1923 HARDING HARRY S. TRUMAN/FRANKLIN D. 1945 Roosevelt died in 1945 ROOSEVELT RICHARD M. NIXON/DWIGHT D. 1953-61 Elected in 1968 after EISENHOWER Losing in 1960 LYNDON B. JOHNSON/JOHN F. 1961-63 Kennedy was assassinated KENNEDY in 1963 GERALD R. FORD/RICHARD M. 1973-74 Nixon resigned in 1974 NIXON GEORGE H.W. BUSH/RONALD REAGAN 1981-89 Elected in 1988