Second-Guessing The No. 2 Spot

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

The great edifice that is the United States Constitution has always had eccentricities, wobbly parts, some joists held together with duct tape. From one edge juts a curious protrusion, an architectural afterthought. It is called the vice presidency.

The Framers didn't know what to do with the backup executive. He was conjured very late in the summer of 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was winding down. He had no power at all, initially -- he was just a body, a seat-warmer, ready to step forward if the president were impeached or keeled over. Eventually the Framers gave him a busywork job:

"The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote" -- you can see them winging it here -- "unless they be equally divided."

So began the long and twisted saga of what John Adams called "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." His successor as vice president, Thomas Jefferson, had little interest in the job and went home to Monticello. The third vice president, Aaron Burr, is famous for gunning down Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and later tried to start a breakaway republic in the West, with himself as emperor.

So it went for many years and many vice presidents, none more egregious than the ninth, the debt-ridden, disheveled, wild-haired Richard Mentor Johnson, who spent much of his tenure back in Kentucky, running a spa and tavern.

"Over most of America's history, the vice president has been standby equipment," says Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter's veep.

All that has changed, however. Mondale played a key role in upping the veep's profile. Today the incumbent vice president is widely regarded as the most powerful in history, a potent force, unfettered, almost a rogue operative. The job remains sufficiently enigmatic that Dick Cheney recently contended from his White House sanctum that he was not, in fact, a member of the executive branch. And there is an active academic debate over whether the Constitution bars someone like Bill Clinton -- now ineligible for the presidency -- from being elected vice president.

"It's a bizarre office. It's quite strange," says Rick Shenkman, a historian at George Mason University and author of "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter."

In recent days we have seen again how the vice presidency enlivens our politics. The pundit class obsessed over Barack Obama's search for a running mate, and pondered whether he should pick his archrival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He played it safe and by the book, going with veteran senator Joe Biden of Delaware. That rather ho-hum choice found its reciprocal number a week later, when John McCain picked as his partner Sarah Palin, the feisty governor and "hockey mom" from Alaska.

Evangelicals and hard-right conservatives roared their approval. Critics howled that she wasn't qualified. Reconstructions of McCain's decision-making process suggested that he knew her about as well as he knew his cable guy.

It seems the vice presidency has always inspired a certain level of drama and nonlinear politics. The institution has an innate aversion to predictability. Perhaps this is how the Framers wanted it all along: one job in government that would always keep things interesting.

* * *

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company