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This time tomorrow we’ll know how Sarah Palin and Joe Biden fared under the debate lite rules the parties agreed to for tonight’s engagement. (You might check out what Slate says at http://www.slate.com/id/2201334/pagenum/all/)
Can Palin hide her woefully inadequate knowledge of Civics 101 in 90 second answers? Is even 90 seconds too long to keep Biden from falling off the message wagon? We’ll see.
Especially since John McCain picked Palin (after being denied his first pick Joe Lieberman and refusing the Republican party’s choice of Mitt Romney) I’ve been thinking there must be a better way to select the second person on any presidential ticket.
Barack Obama put a committee in charge of picking his running mate, and one of the members (former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson) was publicly embarrassed because of a loan he made to the CEO of Countrywide bank in the midst of the subprime mortgage mess. He resigned, and the job fell to attorney general hopeful Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy, a much respected neophyte from a famous political family. Better, but hardly replicable, At least their choice, Biden, had been subjected to voters’ scrutiny in the presidential primaries. And at least Kennedy had the good sense not to put herself forward as Dick Cheney did when in the same position in 2000 and as Michael Moore had jovially encouraged her to do.
Please indulge my inner textbook editor while I review the evolution of the vice presidency here. The office originally was awarded to the man who got the second highest number of votes for president. After the Federalist John Adams got stuck with a vice president of the rival Democratic-Republican party, Thomas Jefferson, unpleasantness ensued. Jefferson ran again and couldn’t unstick himself from his presumed vice president, Aaron Burr. It took the House of Representatives 36 ballots to work that one out. Vice President Burr never occupied the White House, but he did manage to kill a prominent Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel.(That should have told us something about vice presidents with guns, but I guess it didn't.)
So, the Constitution’s 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, required electors to vote for two separate offices—president and vice president. It also awarded the power to decide disputes over the vice presidency to the Senate, where, of course, the incumbent vice president presides. The popular vote for these exalted positions didn’t come until 1824. From 1789 until then, the Electoral College decided it all (and still voters had to wait until 1913 to elect their senators.)
When Vice President John Tyler took over from William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, in 1841, he had to work hard to convince people that he was entitled to the full powers of the presidency. His Whig party didn’t much like him, and they refused to nominate him to run in the next election. Still, the precedent was set. But vice presidents had few duties except to preside over the Senate and vote in case of a tie.
Even though nine of the 46 men who have filled the post have risen to the highest office because the president died or resigned, the realization that any vice president is a potential president hasn’t carried much weight. It, of course, requires candidates to consider their mortality as well as political expediency.
Franklin Roosevelt, our longest-serving president, had three vice presidents—John Garner, who said the vice presidency wasn’t worth a pitcher of something vile; Henry Wallace, whom many felt had too much power and was too far to the left, and Harry Truman, with whom the president shared too little and who said he felt like, “the moon, the stars and all the planets fell on him,” when he assumed the presidency at Roosevelt’s death. Like other presidents who came into office by the same route, Truman got along without a vice president for nearly four years, until he ran in 1948 and brought in Alben Barkley. Lyndon Johnson served alone more than a year after John Kennedy died.
In 1967, the Constitution was amended to allow a vice president who rises to the White House to select a new vice president. So when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, Richard Nixon was able to appoint Gerald Ford as vice president, and when Nixon resigned the presidency, Ford picked Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president.
The amendment made it clear what steps a president had to take to turn over the duties of the office and what might be done if Congress believed the president was incapable of leading. These last powers have never been used, but imagine for a moment if John McCain suffered some incapacitating illness but was unwilling to relinquish power. Would the Congress be willing to seat Palin?
There is another precedent that McCain might review if Palin fails to prove competent. In 1972, Democratic presidential nominee Senator George McGovern had a hard time finding someone to run with him against Nixon. In retrospect, this seems absurd, given the revelations regarding the Watergate burglary that were breaking even then. One prospect after another turned McGovern down, and he turned to Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri senator, who failed to disclose that he had received electroshock for severe depression and was taking the antipsychotic drug Thorazine. After resisting a while, McGovern realized he had made a bad decision. He asked Eagleton to step down and convinced Sargeant Shriver, who had been an earlier favorite, to be his running mate.
Of course, as McCain and the rest of us know, they lost. I doubt the results would have been different if Eagleton stayed on the ticket, though. McGovern had been unfairly but permanently branded as a hopeless liberal. Richard Nixon was re-elected and served another two years before being driven in disgrace from office. George McGovern is now 86 and never lost his integrity; the rules that the Democratic Party passed under his influence went a long way toward making it possible for Barack Obama to become the party’s nominee. Enough said.
Maybe it’s time for both parties to create a new process for selecting a vice presidential candidate that is less subjective and more transparent, with criteria made public so that voters can see who’s coming to dinner—and why they were invited.
Random reflections on politics, the media, political activism, women's lives and spirituality, often inspired by travel, cultural events or what I read.
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