|U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R) shake hands at the conclusion of the vice presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky Oct. 11, 2012. REUTERS/John Gress
What do George Clinton, Henry Wilson and James Sherman have in common? Right. All three were a heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency but the wrong heart stopped ... and now they're trivia questions.
Is the vice presidency, then, "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived," as its first occupant, John Adams, told his wife Abigail? Not at all. But it is highly paradoxical, requiring someone so useless the nation can spare them for four or eight years, but so outstanding they can step in as Commander in Chief on a moment's notice.
Which they do. Fourteen presidents, nearly one in three, moved up from No. 2.
And awkwardly, with five by election and one by resignation, death remains a better bet.
Depending whose. Seven VPs died in office - two, including Clinton, under James Madison alone. (What chump volunteered as No. 3, you ask? Nobody. The job sat vacant from November 1814 to March 1817.)
Sherman is the last VP to die in office, 100 years ago this month.
Three chief executives have done it since, for an 8-7 lead. So it's one way forward. But it's a strange job while it lasts.
For one thing, the VP's only constitutional function is to preside over Senate debates and cast tie-breaking votes (John Adams holds the record, 29). But Alben Barkley is the last regularly to preside over what VP Thomas Marshall called "the cave of winds" and if you know his name you are definitely ready for Trivial Pursuit: The Advanced Edition.
For another, the founding fathers hated and feared partisan politics and their Constitution originally gave the No. 2 spot to whoever came second in Electoral College votes in a presidential election. But after a bad experience with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1796, and a far worse one with Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800, the 12th Amendment in 1804 had electors vote separately for the two jobs.
From then on the VP selection became a partisan "ticket balancing" calculation, designed to sway voters during an election and do nothing much afterward. But political schemes gang oft aglay.
The Whigs, for instance, first won the presidency in 1840 with Democrat John Tyler as VP for cross-partisan appeal, only to have president William Henry Harrison die a month into his term, handing the White House to a partisan rival who ended his days in the Confederate Congress. The hapless Whigs' only other elected president died in 1850 after 16 months in office, putting, um, Millard Fillmore into the Oval Office. But it's not all trivia.
In 1864, to show the Civil War was neither partisan nor sectional, Abraham Lincoln chose a bitter drunken Democratic senator from Tennessee as his running mate and, after his April 1865 assassination, successor. Whenever anyone calls the incumbent Republican the worst president ever, Google Andrew Johnson. But though feebly vile, he certainly mattered: His antics drove northern voters to support Radical Republicans' punitive Reconstruction of the defeated Confederacy, helping divide America for a century.
After the trivial Chester Arthur, accidental presidents improved considerably. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman all convinced their countrymen to re-elect them. But, typically, FDR dumped his 2nd VP Henry Wallace as a left-wing liability in 1944 and, after Truman helped him get re-elected, ignored his understudy so completely the latter had never even heard of the atomic bomb when he took over in April 1945.
The other accidental Johnson also mattered. A southern populist congressional insider to balance New England liberal outsider JFK in 1960, Lyndon Johnson picked up the assassinated Kennedy's mantle in 1963 and drove meaningful civil rights legislation through Congress, reshaping America socially and politically. On the downside, he blundered into Vietnam.
Finally, Gerald Ford wasn't really accidental because he became VP precisely because Nixon had to resign. But he too served with distinction.
Despite this decent record, the typical VP still spends a lot of time representing his country at funerals. But because of one very special funeral he might attend, the choice of running mate can help, or drastically hurt, a candidate by what it says about his judgment.
A useless office? Mostly. Unimportant? Not at all.