Thursday, October 11, 2012

Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: The evolution of the vice president in America

As the presidential race heats up, vice-presidential expert Joel Goldstein discusses how the role of the nation's No. 2 has changed over the decades.

By Randy Dotinga / October 10, 2012

Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan enters the race at a time in when the VP job has become much more significant.

Mary Altaffer/AP


As a satirist once observed about an American vice president, it's hard to play second fiddle when you don't even have a bow.

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The Constitution just doesn't give vice presidents much to do except wait around for something unfortunate to happen. Not all VPs have minded much: One had enough spare time to run a saloon. Others devoted themselves to pastimes like writing history books, dreaming about getting a law degree, and bashing the guy in the White House.

Things have changed. When Joe Biden and Paul Ryan meet in a debate on Thursday, they'll be vying for a position that's become vastly more vital.

How'd that happen? For better or worse, who are the most memorable VPs? And how many have shot a man while in office?

For answers, I called author Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor who's perhaps the nation's leading expert on vice presidents.
Q: One of Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidents famously declared that the office is "not worth a bucket of warm [bodily fluid]."

Setting aside his penchant for earthy language, was he right?
A: For most of our history, up until recently, Vice President John Nance Garner hit the nail on the head.

But the trajectory of the office has been in a positive direction. Since 1977, the beginning of the Mondale vice presidency, it has really been a serious office. All of the vice presidents from Mondale on have been integral parts of the executive branch, right in the midst of White House decision-making.
Q: In the beginning, vice presidents were runners-up in elections and sometimes didn't actually like the presidents they served with. And then they began to be tapped to balance tickets, right?
A: The 19th-century vice presidents were really ticket-balancers who were chosen by party leaders. Sometimes they had resumes that were totally implausible.
Chester Author was collector of customs at the port of New York, and I don't think anyone viewed him as presidential tinder. His job was to help carry New York.

Not long after the election, President Garfield was shot and lingered for 80 days. Then Arthur became president.

Andrew Johnson was a border state Democrat who was put on the ticket with Lincoln for political reasons. John Tyler had nothing in common with the policies of the Harrison administration, which only lasted for a month.
Q: Yet all of these men landed in the White House after presidents died. When did the political system start taking the vice presidency seriously?
A: The system changed around 1940 when the president became more powerful, the national government looked to do more, and the presidential candidates began to take a role in selecting their running mates. From 1976 on, it became increasingly clear that it was good politics to chose someone who was a plausible successor.
Q: Who are some of your favorite obscure vice presidents?
A: Garret Hobart, an unlikely guy who was McKinley's first vice president, had been a New Jersey state legislator. At that time, vice presidents were very peripheral to the business of government, but Hobart became very friendly with McKinley, and he played something of a role. He was an aberration. There's also Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, who compared being vice president to a catatonic state: "He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him."


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