The Second Man: Vice President of the USA | Sarah Stook

‘It’s not worth a bucket of warm piss.’

John Nance Garner’s eloquent words do some up what many think of the office of Vice Presidency. Ever since the inauguration of George Washington, nearly all Presidents (though not all) have had a man stood behind them.

The role of Vice President is a fascinating, if often unknown one. Across the pond, we have nothing like it. Sometimes we’ve had Deputy Prime Ministers- such as Nick Clegg in the 2010-2015 Parliament, but otherwise, there is no strictly defined deputy. Whilst the Constitution defines them as President of the Senate who may vote in a tie-break, there is no other strict role other than (hopefully) faithful subordinate to their President.

Essentially, so long as the President’s heart is beating, they’re fine, but of course, there is so much more to this, as we will see…


Why They Are Selected

Just like in any job, one must have certain qualifications. Of course, it varies between jobs- a doctor needs to have a medical degree, whereas retail jobs sometimes offer interviews without prior experience in the industry. Every President has had his individual reasons for selecting a running mate, as have all the unsuccessful candidates. Though we cannot know what every single President was thinking when he picked his VP, we can have some understanding of why they are picked.

Ideology: It is rare that a Vice President and President will see completely eye to eye, but it is also rarer that every President will make every wing in his party happy with his election and policies. Therefore, the President must select someone to help appeal to broader bases. In nearly every post-War election, there has been some semblance of this. Most notably, it has occurred in the 1960 and 2016 election in order to appeal to conservative branches. In 1960, Kennedy was seen as broadly liberal, especially when it later came to civil rights, and his Catholic religion meant that many would be extremely wary of him (the Catholic faith was not yet a popular one in the United States), especially in the then- Democratic and conservative South. Therefore, he reached out to Lyndon B. Johnson, a more conservative Southerner with a large amount of experience. Similarly, Republican nominee Donald Trump was formerly a Democrat supporter, known for his more liberal beliefs in certain social policy areas, and was (and still is) criticised by the Republican elite such as Paul Ryan and John McCain. Therefore, he reached out to Mike Pence, an arch conservative from the deeply Republican Indiana, several states away from Trump’s native New York, a more liberal place.

This is not always the case, however. In 1992, Bill Clinton chose Al Gore. Both from southern states- Arkansas and Tennessee respectively, they were left of centre candidates who agreed on many issues. They were of course successful- thanks partly to George H W. Bush’s woes, winning by more electoral votes in their 1996 election as well.


Geography: A Democrat from Texas will probably be more conservative than a Democrat from California, simply due to historic and social discrepancies. Therefore, one must appeal to all. Furthermore, the United States is a rather large place, and there are a lot of differences between the different areas. A President raised in a Northern big city will have different experiences, benefits and challenges than a person raised in the middle of rural Texas. It must look as though the President is taking into account the differences of the United States.

Again, nearly all Presidential/Vice Presidential tickets since the 1948 election have varied in their geography. Hubert Humphrey came from Minnesota, a state far away from LBJ’s beloved Texas. Spiro Agnew was a Maryland man to Nixon’s New Yorker. Like Humphrey, Walter Mondale was a Minnesota guy to a southern President- in this case, Jimmy Carter, the Georgia peach. It’s just a matter of pragmatism, and perhaps also the state of politics- the USA will have candidates from all different states, and the best person for the job is most likely to be far away.


Progressiveness: It may be a cynical ploy, but allowing women on the ticket often looks good. So far, there have been no women in the Oval Office, or as second in command, and only two have ever gotten as far as the VP ticket (and one on the Presidential one of a major party).

In 1984, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s former VP, lost by a landslide against popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. He had selected Geraldine Ferraro, a New York Congresswoman. According to reports, Mondale had wanted a female candidate, though he also considered ethnic minorities such as Jesse Jackson. This worked for a while, as huge and excited press coverage allowed her a shining spotlight, as the first female on a major party ticket. In the 1980s, this was rather unprecedented. Unfortunately, her husband’s financial issues caused a major issue, as did her wealth, going against her ‘working-class daughter of Italian immigrants.’

Twenty-four years later, in 2008, Sarah Palin was selected by John McCain. McCain was aware of his status as a moderate Republican, as well as a ‘boring white guy,’ who was going up against either a woman or an African- American (it turned out to be the latter). Therefore, he decided to pacify the conservative wing by choosing little-known Alaskan Senator Sarah Palin, a deep conservative and beloved member of the Tea Party. This actually served him well- Palin electrified many Republicans with her values and energy, and many were excited to see a conservative woman rise this far. Unfortunately, like Mondale and Ferraro, this was to come to an end. Palin’s incoherent interviews gave off the sense that she was a little odd, and very much out of her depth. Coupled with other factors- such as the unpopularity of the Iraq War, which the hawkish McCain supported, as well as Obama’s charisma and sudden rise to fame, the ticket failed.


Fellow Running Mate: Though this has gotten increasingly rarer as the years have passed, many Presidents have selected VPs who also ran in the particular year they did. Sometimes, it’s seen as a consolation prize for the unsuccessful nominee, or to perhaps shore up the support of those who wanted him/her. Sometimes, the VP is the one who was close to winning, which is why it was important for the President to get them on side.

Two of the best examples of this occurred 20 years apart- in 1960 and 1980.

In 1960, JFK chose LBJ as his President. The other reasons are covered above- geographical and ideological differences, but LBJ also happened to run in 1960. LBJ didn’t get a huge amount of delegates, and was notable for his attacks not only on JFK (at least on the early campaign trail), but on the controversial Kennedy family. It seemed as though JFK had chosen LBJ for pragmatism, and many had believed that LBJ would decline the offer. JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, absolutely despised LBJ with every passion, something that was definitely mutual.  It was one of the nastiest feuds in American politics. Rumours floated that Bobby Kennedy believed that LBJ was behind the President’s 1963 assassination, but that has never been proven.

In 1980, George H W Bush ran in the Republican primaries, something he’d been planning for several years. In Iowa, traditionally the first caucus, Bush actually beat Reagan by a small percentage. As a result of this, Reagan reorganised his entire campaign, from strategy to staff, which set him up to win the Primaries. Bush dropped out in May 1980 after Reagan did well in nearly all of the states.  Of course, as with LBJ, the geographical and ideological factors came into play (Bush is a Texan moderate, Reagan a West Coast conservative), but the scare that Bush gave Reagan in Iowa must have come into play.


Experience- Not every President will have been a Congressman, Senator, Governor and Ambassador by the time they’ve arrived at the Oval Office. Some are domestic experts, whilst others are second to none in foreign policy. At the end of the day, not every politican will be a complete all-rounder. Therefore, they must have someone on the ticket that can boost their knowledge. Ever since WWII, since the VP has gained more powers, they are a vital source for their President.

The two biggest examples are two of the most recent. Firstly, we’ve had Bush 43 and Dick Cheney. Bush had been a Governor before, but had no experience in the House or in other areas, apart from being a huge campaigner for his father. Cheney was not only a Congressman, but had worked for both Gerald Ford and Bush 41. Therefore, he was able to gain that Washington experience he lacked, especially the inevitable connections and inside knowledge that came with it.

In 2008, Joe Biden ran for President. His campaign was seen as half-hearted, and was filled with gaffes, and he ended up dropping out. Eventually, Obama, who had served as a Congressman but had not even finished his Senate term, selected Biden as his running mate. The two got on very well as friends, but it was not just that. Obama was only just in middle school when Biden started his 36 year Senate career. The older man had also run two presidential campaigns, and was a very famous Senator. With such a political veteran on his side, Obama boosted his chances. Biden was also seen as somewhat of a Democrat Grandfather, with wisdom on his side, counteracting the freshness and youth of the Obama image.


VPs since 1949:

Alben W. Barley, 1949-1953, Truman- Most known for being old, agreeing with Truman on a lot of issues and being the only VP to marry while in office.

Richard Nixon, 1953-1961, Eisenhower- Most known for the Checkers Speech, major foreign trips and the ‘Kitchen Debate’ with Krushchev.

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1961-1963, Kennedy- Most known for clashing with the Kennedys, kicking off the space programme and pushing for civil rights in the Kennedy administration.

Hubert Humphrey, 1965-1969, Johnson- Most known for touring Europe, pushing for civil rights and his loyalty to Johnson.

Spiro Agnew, 1969-1973, Nixon- Most known for criticising the left and their protests, the Silent Majority speech and having to resign due to corruption charges.

Gerald Ford, 1973-1974, Nixon- Most known for not a lot as VP, considering that Watergate Scandal was happening, and the short time he was in.

Nelson Rockefeller, 1974-1977, Ford- Most known for being the origin of ‘Rockefeller Republican,’ having no power and being appointed instead of elected.

Walter Mondale, 1977-1981, Carter- Most known for extensive travels, starting the weekly POTUS/VP lunches and being the first active VP.

George H W Bush, 1981-1989, Reagan- Most known for keeping a low profile, first VP to act as Acting President, and being investigated in the Iran-Contra affair.

Dan Quayle, 1989-1993, Bush 41- Most known for numerous gaffes (the infamous ‘Potato/Potatoe’ incident), the Murphy Brown speech and thinking the VP office is ‘awkward.’

Al Gore, 1993-2001, Clinton- Most known for competing with Hillary Clinton, ‘founding the internet,’ and environmental initiatives.

Dick Cheney, 2001-2009, Bush 43- Most known for shooting a guy, being a cheerleader for the War on Terror (especially the Iraqi Invasion) and being extraordinarily powerful.

Joe Biden, 2009-2017, Obama- Most known for being a gaffe/meme machine, important work in violence and sexual offences legislation and his speaking ability (especially against Paul Ryan).

Mike Pence, 2017- Present, Trump- Most known for being the first tie-breaker in a Cabinet confirmation, performing ceremonial duties and forming his own PAC.


Their Roles (Official and Unofficial):

President of the Senate (Official) – Officially defined in the Constitution, the VP can only vote if there is a tie-break. Mike Pence was the most recent, voting in favour of confirming Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. They preside over the Senate, though modern VPs very rarely attend unless there is an important matter to attend to. Instead, the President pro tempore of the Senate is appointed by the VP, a person who has more powers, and oversees the Senate in the VP’s absence. Orrin Hatch is the incumbent (as of 13th September 2017). They also must, in their capacity of President of the Senate, certify the vote count of the Electoral College.

First in Line for the Presidency (Official) – Due to the 25th Amendment, if the President dies or resigns, the VP is the first in line of the Presidential Succession. This has occurred throughout history- eight deaths/assassinations, and one resignation. If they are incapacitated for a period, such as when Reagan had surgery, they are made Acting President, which they are soon not when the President is fully able to take power. Furthermore, Clause 4 is a hugely important piece, and the only parts of the 25th Amendment never have been invoked. If 2/3rd of Congress votes the affirmative, then the VP will be made Acting President. This would occur if something happened to the President, such as him going missing, seen in films such as White House Down.

Advisor to the President (Unofficial) – As the office has gained more powers, it is expected that the VP is an advisor to the President. Often, this occurs when the VP is older and more experienced- such as Johnson and Biden. Since many attend Cabinet, they have meetings together and weekly lunches, there are many chances for them to talk policy, especially if they are good friends. Whether they are discussing taxes or wars, they will be there.

Friend to the President (Unofficial) – Being a President is not an easy job, and having a friend to lean back on is helpful. Due to the secrecy of the job, the President cannot often tell his wife, children and friends what is happening. When that becomes stressful, they need to fall back on a friend- one who has the same briefing, the VP. High points have included the loving relationship between Biden and Obama (such as Obama offering to support Biden financially when Biden’s son was diagnosed with cancer- something he sadly died away from, and the friendship bracelets Snapchat), and Carter and Mondale (the two were a tight team and Carter valued his VP’s opinion). Sadly, nearly all President/VP teams have political relationships more than relationships. Whilst few included hatred, mostly, the Presidents shoved the VPs out of the way, seeing them as unnecessary. Low points included Reagan and Bush (Nancy Reagan disliked Bush, which influenced her husband, and the Second Couple were rarely invited to WH events), Johnson/Humphrey and Eisenhower/Nixon.

Campaigner (Unofficial) – Whether they fight in presidential elections or mid-terms, the campaigning element of the VP is a hugely important one. This is especially important when they are popular- Teddy Roosevelt gained popularity when he fought for William McKinley, and Joe Biden was a hugely impressive debater when he wiped the floor with his Republican opposite, Paul Ryan. They do not have the responsibilities and lack of time the President has, but represents them in a lot of ways, so are perfect ways of campaigning. Of course, if a second term is being fought, they are campaigning for themselves- and perhaps practicing for the future.


Vice Presidents who have become Presidents (with some laid-back- and not so laid-back- facts):

John Adams- 2nd President, known for having a badass wife (Abigail).

Thomas Jefferson- 3rd President, a wee bit racist and invented the swivel chair.

Martin Van Buren- 8th President, only POTUS not to speak English as his mother tongue (he came from a Dutch speaking family).

John Tyler- 10th President, known as ‘His Accidency’ for ascending to the office after William Henry Harrison’s death (the first to get to the Presidency that way). VP for one month. Has two LIVING grandsons, despite being born in 1790 (it’s true, look it up).

Millard Fillmore- 13th President, last Whig President, possibly the most obscure President.

Andrew Johnson- 17th President, escaped impeachment by one vote (take note: Bill).

Chester Arthur- 21st President, a guy whose charisma and congeniality could rival Bill Clinton- he even got praised by Mark Twain!

Theodore Roosevelt- 26th President, a man who continued a two hour speech after being shot (he memorised the speech, as the paper stopped the bullet wound), got the Teddy bear named after him, got a Nobel Peace Prize, read two books a day, went on long walks which foreign ambassadors joined him on so that they could talk to him, first POTUS to visit go abroad whilst in power (Panama for the curious), got into a knife fight with a cougar, took up judo after an eye injury, and just a general boss.

(‘Death had to take him in his sleep, for if he was awake, there would have been a fight’- Thomas Marshall on Roosevelt’s death).

Calvin Coolidge- 30th President, ‘Silent Cal’ who inspired the ‘Coolidge Effect’ (not a thing I want to write on here, look it up).

Richard Nixon- 37th President, Tricky Dicky. Watergate and only President to resign.

Gerald Ford, 38th President, nice guy who was shoved into a job he probably wasn’t prepared for. Stupidly pardoned Nixon.

George H W Bush, 41st President. ‘Read my lips: no new taxes,’ apparently impressed by supermarket scanners, did a bang up job at the Gulf War and having the most gaffe prone VP in history (not even Biden can compare to the legend that is Dan Quayle).


If you take anything from this article, let it be that the VP office is a fascinating one, worthy of our respect and admiration. It is not an easy one, but a fascinating one, so I implore you to read into the Second Men of the United States.



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