History Lesson

The Blair House Project

Choosing the presidential running mates. 

Trivia question: Could Al Gore choose Bill Clinton as his running mate? With the presidential nominations assured, the veepstakes have begun. Speculation abounds because, as the candidates’ first “appointments,” the vice-presidential choices offer a first glimpse of their decision-making skills. And because there’s nothing else to discuss.

But while the pundits and the public jabber over the whos and whys, political scientists ponder the how. Every few years, some think tank appoints a panel to assess the selection process and then issues a report containing thoughtful ideas for reform, which are promptly ignored until the next panel convenes. First a little history.

The vice presidency began, in 1787, as an afterthought. Having created the Electoral College for choosing the president, the Constitution’s framers feared that, come election time, each state’s electors would vote for a favorite son, precluding the selection of a president with national appeal. So they decided that every elector would get two votes for president, one of which he had to cast for someone from another state. The candidate netting the second most electoral votes would become vice president.

It sounded good, but flaws soon appeared. In 1796, John Adams, a Federalist, won the presidential election by three electoral votes over Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican. As a result, the new president and vice president belonged to different political parties. The framers, naively, hadn’t planned for the emergence of parties.

To fix the problem, party leaders in 1800 instructed electors to unite behind a single vice-presidential candidate. But then a different glitch occurred: Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, each got exactly 73 votes, forcing the House of Representatives to choose one of them for president. Mischievously, Federalist congressmen voted for Burr, stalemating the vote 35 times. Finally, Alexander Hamilton intervened and got his party-mates to let Jefferson prevail. (Burr later killed him.)

Reform came with the 12th Amendment, adopted in 1804, which overhauled the vice-presidential election process into its modern form. Now electors would vote for a ticket, rendering the vice president a mere accessory. This yielded yet another unintended consequence: The candidates were no longer of presidential timber. Especially with the rise in the 1830s of political parties, grand conventions, and back-room pols, bosses saw that they could use the No. 2 post to build party unity. Typically, they would placate factions that lost out on the presidential choice by picking a veep from a different region—or even of a different ideology—irrespective of other credentials.

With such coarse considerations influencing the choice, mediocrity reigned. Statesmen such as Daniel Webster shunned the office, which carried few significant responsibilities and seemed like a backwater for hacks. Veeps were so expendable that even victorious ones were routinely discarded by their own parties four years later, so as to balance the ticket better with some other no-name. In fact, no president was renominated with the same running mate until William Taft retained James Sherman as his No. 2 in 1912. Sherman, alas, failed to make history—at least in the way he’d hoped—when he dropped dead late in the 1912 campaign. His passing, though, turned out to be moot, since Taft wound up losing to Woodrow Wilson in November. (Wilson kept his veep, Thomas Marshall, for two terms.)

The stock of vice-presidential candidates rose in 1900 after President William McKinley, looking to replace his deceased 1896 running mate, Garret Hobart, settled on New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt. (New York’s “Boss” Thomas Platt wanted to get TR out of the governor’s chair.) While the president ran a sedentary “front porch” campaign, TR barnstormed the country, delivering 673 speeches and serving as the Republicans’ public face. TR later became the first No. 2 to accede to the presidency and then win election in his own right. (Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson would all replicate the feat.)

Although the vice presidency was attracting higher-caliber candidates than before, into the 1930s, bosses still called the shots. It took a presidential candidate as strong as Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to change the process. Having fallen out with the pol-chosen John Nance Garner, his understudy of ‘32 and ‘36, FDR insisted upon Henry Wallace as his second banana in 1940—threatening to walk, not run. The party leaders capitulated.

T he shift of power to the nominees took time to solidify. In 1944, FDR dumped Wallace and gave Harry Truman the keys to Blair House over his first choice, James Byrnes. (Truman didn’t actually move into Blair House as veep. Contrary to urban legend, vice presidents have never lived in Blair House, although President Truman occupied it when the White House was being renovated.) In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower let a cadre of Republican insiders choose his understudy, although he had given his aide Herbert Brownell a list of acceptable names. Conveniently, Ike’s list included the insiders’ pick, Richard Nixon, and no conflict emerged. The last candidate to relinquish control of the selection was Adlai Stevenson, in 1956. Stevenson ceded the decision to the Democratic Convention, not out of weakness but because he didn’t want to personally offend either Estes Kefauver or John F. Kennedy, both senators who were angling for the nod.

Since 1960, candidate-centered politics and televised conventions with foreordained presidential nominees have placed full control of the veep choice in the nominees’ hands. On the whole, this development has yielded candidates who are ideologically in sync with the presidential nominee. The growing power of the vice presidency and the nominees’ desire to make a splash with their first big appointment at the overscripted conventions have also led them to name partners who would themselves make plausible presidents.

There have been missteps. In 1972, George McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton, unaware that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for severe depression. Two weeks later, McGovern replaced him with Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver—a move that made McGovern look inept. The fiasco prompted Jimmy Carter in 1976 to conduct the now-obligatory process of thoroughly vetting the political, financial, and personal backgrounds of prospective nominees.

Even with vetting, surprises crop up. George Bush père’s wish to make a splash led to undue secrecy about his choice, and he was blindsided by the outcry over his choice of Sen. Dan Quayle. Analysts, overlooking Quayle’s subtle, canny, and determined, attributed the selection to ill-considered ticket-balancing: Quayle was Midwestern, youthful, and liked by the right. Even with the radical change in the process, then, ticket-balancing—or at least seeking to tap new constituencies—still carries great weight.

The sight of Quayle hopping up and down on a New Orleans pier, looking like a winning contestant on The Price Is Right, prompted a new round of hand-wringing about the selection process. Wonks revived the perennial reforms: primaries for the veep slot, transferring the choice to the convention, abolishing the vice presidency altogether (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s solution). Such prescriptions ignore, however, that most recent selections have worked out well. Since 1960, vice-presidential nominees Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, George Bush, and Al Gore all proved to be creditable presidential candidates, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Geraldine Ferraro, Lloyd Bentsen, and Jack Kemp turned out to be heavyweights. Besides Quayle, only William Miller (Goldwater’s second) and Spiro Agnew (Nixon’s) failed to project gravitas.

As Gore and Bush survey prospective second fiddles, look for them to seek candidates who possess stature, who provide balance and yet are also ideologically compatible. But don’t look for Gore to pick Clinton. The 22nd Amendment forbids any president from being elected to more than two terms, and (here’s the wrinkle) the 12th Amendment says that no one ineligible for the presidency shall be eligible for the vice presidency. [Editor’s note: Not so. See this “Press Box” column for a correction.] Clinton’s getting a seat on the Supreme Court, on the other hand, would be entirely constitutional.