From Irrelevance to Power

By Jules Witcover

Smithsonian. 575 pp. $34.95

Thomas Jefferson’s description of the presidency as a “splendid misery” is often quoted. Less remembered is his comment on the vice presidency, an office he considered “honorable and easy.” Few readers of syndicated columnist Jules Witcover’s compendium of short portraits of the nation’s vice presidents will agree.

Witcover maintains that for much of American history, the vice presidency “had little significance or utility in governing the nation’s affairs” — a reality that was all too apparent to the men who occupied the office until relatively late in the 20th century. Close to presidential power but denied the opportunity to exercise meaningful authority, vice presidents often keenly felt the agony produced by their anomalous position. “I am nothing,” lamented John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, “but I may be everything.”

Witcover explores the personal qualities and political circumstances that shaped each man’s tenure in office as he surveys every vice president from Adams to Joseph Biden, who serves, Witcover argues, as “a model for future occupants of the office.” Biden’s congenial relationship with President Obama and wide-ranging responsibilities stand in marked contrast to the sidelined vice presidents of the 19th century. Many of the latter, Witcover maintains, served without distinction and were relegated to obscurity.

‘The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power’ by Jules Witcover (Smithsonian)

Drawing on standard biographical studies, some autobiographies and a few interviews with recent vice presidents, who he believes have helped to transform the office (Walter Mondale, Dick Cheney and Biden), Witcover traces a trajectory that has moved the vice presidency from the periphery of the executive branch to its center. He emphasizes historical circumstances and “enlightened presidential leadership” as decisive in expanding vice-presidential authority, noting the greater complexity of government in the modern era.

Indeed, Cheney functioned as nothing less than an “assistant president,” in Witcover’s view, amassing an unprecedented level of power. Although Witcover appears mostly to celebrate the expansion of purpose and authority, he allows Mondale to raise a discordant note. “What happens,” Mondale asks in reference to Cheney, when a vice president amasses so much power that he is able to run “a kind of secret, separate government, unaccountable, even less accountable than the president?” It’s a question left hanging.

Witcover’s account is replete with tales of political machinations that placed figures of dubious merit chillingly close to the presidency. Thomas Hendricks’s outspoken and appalling racism, for instance, proved no barrier to his selection as Grover Cleveland’s running mate in 1884. To be sure, the republic has survived choices driven by political expediency and the foibles of the men occupying an office that more often than not failed to lead to the presidency. The nation also profited from the sacrifices made by those who set aside their own ambitions for higher office to better serve the president. The country rallied in no small measure because of the grit displayed by Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, who suddenly assumed the presidency after having been sidelined as vice presidents.

Witcover concludes that “Americans at the ballot box should take time to evaluate” the process and outcome of a presidential candidate’s choice of running mate. “Failure to act wisely and soberly should raise serious public doubts concerning the presidential nominee’s own worthiness to assume the nation’s highest office,” he warns. True, even if the history Witcover examines shows how often that principle has been honored in the breach.

Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor of modern American history at the University of New Hampshire. Her most recent book is “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”