Richard Nixon, elected with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, gave generously to the dusty storehouse of vice presidential trivia. Asked what Nixon’s principal contribution to foreign affairs was, Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
To be fair, some historians would counter that Nixon did a good job presiding over Eisenhower’s cabinet for six weeks while the president recovered from a heart attack. (See “Richard Nixon—A Great President!” The Contrarian View, Nov/Dec 2012.) Nixon was the only vice president to be elected president after leaving office and suffering through two opposition presidents: Kennedy and Johnson.
When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned following a bribery scandal in 1973, Nixon appointed Gerald Ford of Michigan to the post. Then, when Nixon himself resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandals, Ford became president and appointed Nelson Rockefeller vice president.
The presidential nomination of a vice president—who went missing for whatever reason—was not possible until 1967 when the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
Spiro Agnew oozed onto the political scene with Nixon in 1968. A former governor of Maryland, Agnew was the first vice president to serve his master as an attack dog, and relished uttering such phrases as “nattering nabobs of negativism” to define the Washington press corps. As we have seen, the press had the last laugh.
Dan Quayle, the fifth vice president elected from Indiana, first got himself roasted in the 1988 vice presidential debate by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” He then went on to publicly misspell “potato” as “potatoe.” Investigation later revealed that he’d been given a flash card containing the errant spelling, but the damage was done.
Quayle, a sitting U.S. Senator, took office with George H.W. Bush and was somehow invited to run for a second term. In Quayle’s hometown of Huntington, Indiana, stands the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center. According to Roadside America, visitors can view such exhibits as Dan Quayle’s grammar-school report cards (Bs and As, thank you very much) and one of Millard Fillmore’s hats.
Were there any good vice presidents? Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, there were a few. And remember that, under the original electoral system, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were vice presidents.
Teddy Roosevelt won both the Republican nomination for president in 1904 and the subsequent election. In 1912, he ran unsuccessfully for president with his ill-starred Bull Moose Party (see “100 Years Ago—A Chaotic Presidential Election”). By then, however, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, served as New York City’s police commissioner, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and established himself as a dedicated conservationist and successful reformer.
John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner from Uvalde, Texas, served as vice president for two terms under Franklin Roosevelt. He is most famous for his definitions of the office he occupied, but he was also a former Speaker of the House and a power in Democratic politics. He might well have become president had FDR not run for an unprecedented third term.
Harry Truman, elected vice president for FDR’s even more unprecedented fourth term, assumed the presidency on April 12, 1945, when FDR died less than three months after the inauguration. Truman was nominated for president in 1948 and elected, but his contribution to the vice presidency went far deeper than personal success.
Truman took office with a minimum of preparation—FDR had essentially ignored him—and found his plate filled with such items as World War II, the atomic bomb, peace in Europe, and Soviet expansionism. He vowed that no vice president should ever again be so blindsided, and he put his own vice president, Kentucky’s popular Alben Barkley, on the National Security Council and otherwise involved him in government.
From Truman forward, some but not all vice presidents ran as men (and one woman, Geraldine Ferraro) considered capable of occupying the presidency. Is it our bad luck or our good fortune that only one vice president, George H.W. Bush (whose linguistic contribution was “Voodoo Economics”), has made it to the presidency in the last 44 years?