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Home | Blog | The Not-So-Imperial Vice Presidency

The Not-So-Imperial Vice Presidency

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08/30/2008

Rick Brookheiser of National Review presents a succinct argument against presumptive Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Heath Palin: “Either [John] McCain thinks the war on terror isn’t serious, or he thinks the vice-presidency isn’t. Since the former is obviously untrue, it must be the latter.”

Brookheiser seems to be in the minority among Republicans, however; Mrs. Palin, the incumbent governor of Alaska, has sparked an enthusiastic reply from the party’s Bush-demoralized base. There’s definitely a disconnect between popular and elite opinion. I read an online chat with a political reporter from one of the Alaska newspapers who complained, bitterly, that while Governor Palin was popular with voters, she was widely disliked by legislators and statehouse media. Similarly, there’s been much groaning from the national media and political elite about a woman who once served as a mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (current population, 8,741).

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a pillar of the new establishment media, wrote, “The most important thing about a Vice Presidential candidate — as with a Presidential candidate — is fitness to be President.” Andrew Sullivan added that this was a “truism.” Yet history has shown quite the opposite. Despite changes in how vice presidents are nominated since John Adams finished second to George Washington in 1788, the real truism is that the vice presidency if first, second and always a political Tchotchke – a trinket used to address intra-party division. The main debating point against Mrs. Palin is her lack of “experience,” a term that lacks precise definition. Mrs. Palin served ten years in the Wasilla city government, two years as head of a state commission and a little less than two years as governor. This pales in comparison to the 36 years that Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has spent in the Senate. But Mrs. Palin can claim a longer government career then Barack Obama, who has served half a Senate term and seven years prior in the Illinois legislature.

But it seems to me that “experience” is more about the possession of certain credentials then time spent furthering the evils of the state. Mr. Obama may not have any particular legislative achievements or “executive” experience, but he does possess an undergraduate degree from Columbia and a law degree from Harvard. Mrs. Palin, in contrast, has only an undergraduate degree from the University of Idaho – her fourth stop in an extended college career – financed partially through her winnings as a beauty pageant contestant. She is, as one Democrat told me yesterday, one step removed from white trash.

Credentialism is certainly rampant in this country, driven as it is by the growth of the state. Yet the vice presidency of the United States remains an office where credentials seem to have little or no meaning. Consider the following parade of major party vice presidential nominees:

  • In 1880, Republicans nominated Chester Alan Arthur, who until 1878 was the Collector of the Port of New York; he never held any elected office prior to his nomination. Arthur was elected and became president following the murder of James A. Garfield.
  • In 1892, Republicans nominated Whitelaw Reid, who never held elected office but had served three years as ambassador to France.
  • In 1896, Republicans nominated Garret Augustus Hobart, who last held elected office 15 years earlier as president of the New Jersey Senate. He was elected and served with William McKinley.
  • In 1908, Democrats nominated John Worth Kern, who last held political office in 1901 as city solicitor of Indianapolis, and whose only prior electoral success was four years in the Indiana Senate;
  • In 1920, Democrats nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had served less than two terms in the New York Senate and seven years as the assistant secretary of the Navy.
  • In 1924, Republicans nominated Charles Gates Dawes, who never held elected office and who previously served one year as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Dawes was elected and served with Calvin Coolidge.
  • In 1936, Republicans nominated Frank Knox, a newspaper publisher from Chicago who never held any government office. (Knox later served as secretary of the navy.)
  • In 1940, Democrats nominated Henry Agard Wallace, who never held elected office but served seven years as secretary of agriculture. Wallace was elected and served with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • In 1972, Democrats nominated Robert Sargent Shriver, who never held elected office but served five years as director of the Peace Corps and two years as ambassador to France. Shriver’s chief credential was his marriage to the sister of John F. Kennedy.

This list covers nominees who never held a major federal or statewide office. But there are plenty more dazzling resumes, even in recent times:

  • In 1848, Whigs nominated Millard Fillmore, a former four-term congressman then serving as New York State comptroller. Fillmore was elected and became president following the death of Zachary Taylor.
  • In 1912, Democrats nominated Thomas Riley Marshall, who spent most of his career as a small-town lawyer before serving one term as governor of Indiana (having been nominated as a compromise candidate.) He was elected twice and served with Woodrow Wilson.
  • In 1968, Republicans nominated Spiro Theodore Agnew, who had spent less than two years as governor of Maryland and four years before that as a county executive. He was elected twice and served with Richard Nixon.
  • In 1952, Republicans nominated Richard Milhous Nixon, who had spent less than six years in the House and Senate. He was elected twice and served with Dwight Eisenhower.
  • In 1984, Democrats nominated Geraldine Anne Ferraro, who had spent less than six years in the House representing part of Queens County, New York.

The lesson here is that, when you get right down to it, the only “qualifications” to be vice president are the ones actually stated in the Constitution: A natural-born citizen over the age of 35 who has resided in the U.S. for 14 years. Maybe the Framers should have required an Ivy League degree, but they didn’t. And as I noted in a post here three years ago, the office of vice president was not exactly the result of careful planning; it was a last-minute addendum by the Framers to avoid having the Senate pick one of its own members as presiding officer.

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