Review of “The American Vice Presidency” by Jules Witcover


What has always amazed me is the extent to which potential presidents give little thought outside of political considerations to the nature of the person filling the role of vice-president. Yet that person would of course become president if the president himself died; became disabled; resigned; or was removed from office. [And yes, I am using male pronouns because thus far, no females have occupied either office.] Even Lincoln, who had numerous assassination threats as well as regular dreams that he would die in office, selected someone who would help him get reelected rather than considering what kind of political leader his choice for vice president might be.

(One of the saddest anecdotes about the vice presidency, which Witcover includes in this book, was the response to Lincoln’s emissary when Benjamin Butler entertained an overture from Lincoln about running for Vice President for Lincoln’s second term. Butler replied in part:

“Please say to Mr. Lincoln, that while I appreciate with the fullest sensibility this act of friendship and the compliment he pays me, yet I must decline. Tell him with the prospects of the campaign, I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me bond with sureties, that he will die or resign within three months of his inauguration.”

Of course, Lincoln went on to do just exactly that.)

In a similar vein, less than twenty years later, Mark Hanna, chief political advisor to William McKinley, and concerned that McKinley’s vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt was a “madman,” wrote to McKinley: “Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.” Unfortunately for Hanna at least, McKinley served only 200 days before being struck down by an assassin, and Theodore Roosevelt went on to become the 21st president.

One of the more interesting portraits is that of Henry Wilson, President Grant’s second term vice-president. Wilson was an advocate of protecting blacks in the South, and for an end to school segregation. He also railed against the “money power” of corporate America. He campaigned heavily for Grant, but it took a toll on his health, and he suffered a stroke barely two months after being inaugurated. For the remaining three years of his life, he was mostly incapacitated, and disregarded by Grant in any event.

Henry Wilson, 18th Vice President of the United States

Henry Wilson, 18th Vice President of the United States

William Wheeler, who served as Vice-President to Rutherford B. Hayes, is another intriguing man. (When Wheeler was nominated, Hayes reportedly turned to his wife and said, “Who is Wheeler?”) While in Congress, Wheeler stood apart for his apparent lack of greed, turning down offers of bribes and even returning his Congressional salary raise to the US. treasury. But like other presidents, Hayes rarely consulting Wheeler on anything.

Of Thomas Marshall, Vice President under Woodrow Wilson, Witcover writes: “Perhaps no previous vice president was more poorly treated up to this time than Thomas Riley Marshall of Indiana.” Marshall was not even told when Wilson suffered a stroke and became incapacitated! Wilson’s true second-in-command (besides his first and second wives) was Colonel Edward House, who, according to some, was the real power behind the throne. But even Colonel House couldn’t stand up to the second Mrs. Wilson. When Wilson was incapacitated, it was Edith Wilson who decided if official papers should be seen or signed by Wilson, and some of the signatures looked like her writing rather than his. Meanwhile, Marshall wasn’t even admitted to Wilson’s sickroom. Wilson did, however, survive his term of office however (in some form or other). When rival Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding for president and Calvin Coolidge for vice president, Marshall sent Coolidge a telegram: “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”

Thomas Marshall, 28th Vice President of the United States

Thomas Marshall, 28th Vice President of the United States

Spiro “Ted” Agnew was totally shut out by Richard Nixon’s tight-knit staff, but was sent instead around the country to make inflammatory speeches railing against unrest on campus. Aided by Nixon speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, he called Vietnam War protesters “a small group of misfits,” “a minority of pushy youngsters and middle-aged malcontents…,” “an effete corps of impudent snobs….” and “nattering nabobs of negativism,” inter alia. He was also told to target the press and Democratic liberals, saying all the things Nixon wanted to but could not. Agnew was all too happy to comply. In spare moments, he lobbied Nixon’s team to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But nine months into their second terms, Agnew had to resign after he was exposed on multiple charges of taking bribes not only while he was Governor of Maryland, but even as the Vice President. Agnew admitted to taking the money but claimed it had not influenced his official actions. He was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and a fine. When a bust of him as Vice President was dedicated in the Senate chambers, he observed: “I am not blind or deaf to the fact that some people feel that this is a ceremony that should not take place.”

Spiro Agnew, 39th Vice President of the United States

Spiro Agnew, 39th Vice President of the United States

The author contends that it was only with the presidency of Jimmy Carter that the vice president (in that case, Walter Mondale), was given tasks to perform beyond the usual ceremonial and political chores. (When nominated, given Mondale’s previous statements about reluctance to campaign, Mondale felt obliged to clarify to reporters: “What I said at the time was that I did not want to spend most of my life in Holiday Inns. But I’ve checked and found they’ve all been redecorated.”)

Walter Mondale, 42nd Vice President of the United States

Walter Mondale, 42nd Vice President of the United States

Ever since Mondale’s time, the author reports that vice presidents “have become genuine partners in governance with their presidents.”

This book seeks to redress some of the injustice that doomed most vice presidents to obscurity, in spite of the impressive careers that led them to garner their party’s nominations in the first place. There are so many interesting anecdotes in this book; these men played important parts in our history, and are worth getting to know.

Evaluation: Even many history buffs will be astounded by the extent to which they do not know the names of some of the men in this examination of the 47 vice-presidents who have served thus far in American history. The author includes a chapter on every single one of them, and the stories and personalities depicted are absolutely fascinating. If you love history and politics, as I do, you will really appreciate this book!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Smithsonian Books, 2014

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