Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American Vice Presidents

One of the highlights of the quadrennial Democratic and the Republic National Conventions is the (official) party nomination of the Vice President candidate. After seeing strong evidences for the last eight years that the choice of Vice President (AND President) do matter, it is useful to look at the history of American Vice Presidents and the nominees this time.

The fundamental role and qualifications of the Vice President is intuitively obvious - the first successor of the President in case the President cannot perform his or her duty. Many have noted such a “spare tire” role leaves the Vice President with mostly ceremonial duties and as a result, the impact and qualifications of Vice President candidates in election was often de-emphasized. Of course, it is really up to the president how and what roles and responsibilities would his/her Vice President would have beyond attending funerals and presiding over the Senate and casting the rare tie-breaking vote. The current Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, has enjoyed tremendous influence and power being entrusted by George W. Bush for significant decisions and policy making. One also must not forget that historically, there were 9 Vice Presidents (out of 46) succeeded the Presidency before the term expired due to death and resignation (see e.g., Wikipedia entry on American Vice Presidents). Among the recent ones, Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon in July 1974 when Nixon was forced to resign as a result of Watergate scandal and cover-ups. Lyndon Johnson succeeded John Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963. Harry Truman succeeded Frank Roosevelt when he died less than 3 months into his un-precedent 4th term on April 12, 1945.

Truman’s case is in fact most illuminating. Prior to the day Frank Roosevelt passed away, Truman was seldom contacted by Roosevelt and oblivious to major discussions and decisions of President’s office (including the Manhattan Project). Simply put it, he was not in the loop and was totally unprepared as most VPs were. According to the famous story, when offering his consolation to the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Mrs. Roosevelt responded, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

To his credit, now regarded as one of the great American Presidents by most historians, Harry Truman managed to learn and step up quickly to the job. He ended up making several huge and crucial historical decisions some of which were controversial and not popular during his presidency from 1945 to 1953. They include dropping atomic bombs in Japan twice to force the surrender of Japan and end the WWII, creating the Marshal Plan to help rebuild postwar Europe despite the domestic economic challenges, supporting the creation of UN and establishment of Israel, entering the Korean War under UN’s authorization. The proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 for containment of communist’s expansion led by Soviet Union set the tone for American’s foreign policy and cold war till late 1980’s and early 1990’s. In retrospect, for most parts these decisions were good ones and have had long lasting positive impacts.

At any rate, majority of Vice Presidents did not get a chance like Harry Truman or Dick Cheney did; they found it to be an extremely boring job indeed. Theodore Roosevelt, another highly regarded American President, was quoted to have said “ I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than Vice-President” when he was serving as Vice President.

Then we got some downright embarrassing ones without making material contributions. Topping the list was Spiro Agnew of Nixon’s vice president since 1969; the only vice president thus far had resigned from the office (in Oct 1973) due to criminal charges (less than a year later Nixon joined him and made the history as the first pair that resigned from the office). Then there was Dan Quayle, the young VP of President George H.W. Bush from 1989-1993. He couldn’t stay out of trouble even when visiting elementary schools. His infamous gaffe of correcting a student’s correct spelling of “potato” into “potatoe” stayed with him forever. Of course, he was already permanently damaged from the televised vice-presidential debate against Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen earlier in 1988. In that debate his attempt in comparing himself to John F. Kennedy backfired. That is the memorable moment when Senator Bentsen gave his deadly rebuttal: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"

How Vice President gets selected has changed over time somewhat. According to Mark O. Hatfield’s Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993, initially under the system the framers created, the candidate receiving the most electoral votes would be president. The runner-up would be vice president. This sounded good on paper but it turned out when the two could not work with each other as Jefferson and Burr showed, system was paralyzed. As a result, the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804 to address the issue and the current system became effective whereby electorate cast separate ballots for president and for vice president and each party would put up a joint president and vice president ticket.

For the subsequent decades, party bosses have considerable sayings about who would be the Vice President nominee until Frank D. Roosevelt, the most popular American President in history, insisted on choosing his own Vice Presidential candidate in 1940. It became the common practices to this date and most of the time Party’s Presidential candidate would announce his/her pick prior to the convention.

There is no exception this year. Barrack Obama announced the veteran Senator Joe Biden as his pick two days before the Democratic Party Convention. Then John McCain shocked the world last Friday by announcing his pick of the current Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin three days before the Republican Party Convention.

While everyone would agree that vice president nominee should be someone who can step up in no time to be the President when needed, it often did not work out that way for political reasons and with calculations to increase the chance to win the election by gathering additional supports from key voter blocks. McCain’s decision can only make sense under those considerations that is ironic for someone who has always wanted to project an image of being above politics and country first. This does offer an indirect indication of the desperation that without someone like Sarah Palin on the ticket with extremely conservative stances, McCain is not likely to get strong support from the traditional Republican Christian Right voter base that would almost guarantee his defeat in Nov.

But what about the risks that the good people and the nation have to carry if McCain-Palin ticket wins? There were some parallels and analogues situations in the past. According to the Republican spin machines, Governor Palin started her major “executive” and “reformer” experience as a school PTA member (a side note; my wife served once as a PTA president of a much bigger school that would qualify her for Presidency then?), council member, and then mayor of Wasilla from 1996-2002, a small town with a population about 7,000. She was elected to the Governor late 2006. In contrast, Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s VP pick, had been the Baltimore County Board Executive for 4 years (1962-1966) and then 2 years (1966-68) as Governor of Maryland prior to his 1968 nomination to VP. Of course, Maryland and Baltimore County are much more populated than Alaska and Wasilla, respectively. Further before Nixon selected Spiro Agnew, they had only met once just like McCain and Palin. Coincidentally, Nixon had also considered George Romney for VP who was competing with Nixon for Republican presidential nomination just like McCain and Mitt Romney, George Romney’s son, were!

Some may consider these bad omens for McCain-Palin. However the only way we can make sure the history does not repeat itself with disastrous outcomes is to go to the poll in Nov and vote for Obama-Biden, don’t you agree? Before I go, here is a funny parody of McCain-Palin on Youtube for your entertainment, passed on to me from my good friend JC. Talk to you soon!

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