December 23, 2008

Rating The Vice Presidents

There's a poll that CNN is featuring prominently in which 23% of Americans say that Dick Cheney is the worst Vice President in American history. This is about the dumbest poll I've ever heard of.

First of all, bear in mind that in other polls looking at similar populations, only 69% of the people could name the Vice President at all. Also in a recent poll of all Americans about their beliefs, 44% of Americans believe in ghosts, 36% in UFOs, 31% in witches and astrology, and 24% believe that they are reincarnated. 47% believe in evolution, 40% believe in creationism, which leaves 13% who apparently believe in neither. So we're not talking about a particularly well-informed population responding to the poll here.

So then let's get down to the real issue here. What is it that distinguishes a good Vice President from a bad one? By what criteria are we to distinguish Charles Fairbanks from Levi Morton? For much of our history, the Vice President's job has consisted of waiting around for the President to die, accepting bribes, and staying sober enough to cast the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

This does not seem like a particularly difficult job. To a very real extent, then, a successful Vice President is one who does not die in office. Yet seven Vice Presidents have not found themselves up to the task of continuing to breathe for the amount of time demanded of them by the Constitution so as to be able to take over in the event of such a need. Aside from that, it's kind of hard to figure out how to rank the performance of these forty-six men in discharging the minimal and vague duties of such a peculiar office over more than two hundred years of history.

Vice President Cheney has done and said a lot of controversial things over the past eight and a half years. I'm very much not a big fan of his sweeping vision of nearly unchecked executive power. He has taken a very active hand in guiding the shape of our government's policy as a trusted advisor to the President. He's been abrasive with Congress and high-handed towards the rest of the government and at times even to the rest of the country. Which is to say, he can be a real tool when he wants to be.

At the same time, he's damned smart. He did a lot to streamline the bureaucracy and make the flow of information and commands into and out of the White House more efficient. He's been a strong advocate for beefing up the military and has been a significant architect of the Administration's policies both good and bad. He has quietly served as an example of tolerance for gays in a party that at times seemed to be building its social policy platform on prejudice. He has willingly taken on the job of spokesman for the Administration's more controversial policies and gone out of his way to maintain press contacts to assist with that purpose. For better or worse, he has been a powerful political and influential policy force within and for the Administration, and the Bush White House would likely have been worse off without him. So there's some things to admire, too, even if you disagree with the particular policies in question.

Now, I'm neither defending nor attacking the choice of Cheney as "worst Vice President ever." But it does seem to me that the poll respondents have not really taken stock of some of the other available choices. Some Vice Presidents have excelled at odiousness, distinguished themselves as some of the most repugnant figures in our national history.

Consider, for instance, Aaron Burr. After killing one of the most prominent members of George Washington's inner circle, Burr distinguished himself by trying to raise a private army to wrest control of the Louisiana Territory and the Ohio River Valley so as to have himself made King of those lands, then tried to incite war with Spain, and was only narrowly acquitted of treason. Burr stands out as one of the great villains of American history. Is Cheney better or worse than this?

Have the poll respondents considered convicted extortionist, alliteration specialist and admitted bribe recipient Spiro Agnew? The author of wonderful political assessments such as "Ultra-liberalism today translates into a whimpering isolationism in foreign policy, a mulish obstructionism in domestic policy, and a pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order," Agnew added luster to the remarkable emergence of criminal records from the Nixon Administration.

John Calhoun spent much of his time in the #2 office (under two different Presidents) laying the intellectual foundation for the secession of the Confederacy, most specifically the doctrine of nullification. 'Nuff said there.

The first two Vice Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, did not grace the office particularly well, either. Adams excelled in his role as the Washington Administration's official public surrogate for the President for purposes of absorbing policy criticisms, and compounded his role by periodically going to the Senate and attempting to control the debates there, not leaving until he was literally hooted out of the place by the actual office-holders. Jefferson, as Adams' Vice-President, spent as much time and effort as he could using his considerable political talents to undermine Adams' Presidency and thwart the policy goals of the Adams Administration -- of which he was nominally part.

Thomas Marshall probably should have become President when Woodrow Wilson had a stroke that rendered him paralyzed and unable to communicate with others. He was, however, kept in the dark about President Wilson's condition and for all intents and purposes, Edith Wilson was the functional President during Wilson's convalescence. Marshall should be faulted for allowing himself to be that far out of the loop, to have that few connections with the President, and that little juice that he could be shipped off to golf courses and chamber of commerce meetings instead of doing his job and taking the reins of the White House during the country's time of need.

And the Cheney critics appear very likely to have forgotten an even more recent favorite whipping boy.

Joe Biden has got his work cut out for him if he wants to sink to the bottom of this barrel, that's for sure.

But for the time being, the very concept of rating Vice Presidents is spectacularly silly. It's only in recent years that the Vice President has had much of an active role in government at all. Al Gore and Dick Cheney are the only two I can think of who actually were given any kind of substantial hand in crafting policy. The rest of them spent time doing ceremonial work, heading up token commissions, or at best, working the back channels with Congress. It's only when and if the Vice Presidents are called upon to step up to the plate and assume the powers of the Presidency that we can take their measure.

Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon (himself an undistinguished Vice President) and he took a political bullet for doing it. But it was the right thing to do, it let the country move past Watergate and the realization that their President had been not only a crook but a world-class criminal. A decent man, who realized that he had all kinds of odds stacked against him, he used his time in the Oval Office wisely and quickly and when it came time to pay the price, he took it like a man. But that's really evaluating his performance as President, not his performance as Vice President.

John Tyler may have succeeded in the greatest coup in American history. When his President, William Henry Harrison, became the first to die in office, a strong argument could have been made that because the Constitution only provided that if the President died, "the Powers and Duties of the [Presidency] shall devolve on the Vice President," Tyler had no right to say that he was actually the President. But he seemed to win out in the political struggle and finished the rest of Harrison's term. His example was precedent for the assumption of the Presidency by seven successors. It only became enshrined in the constitution in 1967 and fortunately, we have not had to resort to it since then. Does that make him a good Vice President or a bad one? He was only Vice President for a month, anyway.

I think that George H.W. Bush (Bush the Elder) did a good job as VP. When Reagan was shot, it looked for a few hours like Defense Secretary and Nixon Administration alumnus Al Haig was trying to cut Bush out of the picture and take the reins of power for himself. Bush bitch-slapped Haig back into place while President Reagan recuperated -- and then, when Reagan was back on his feet, Bush readily stepped back into the shadows.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Andrew Johnson, too. Here's a guy who made himself as lonely as a political figure could be -- a Democrat in a Republican administration, a pariah from his own party for his Unionist sympathy, and firmly insistent on the personal power of the Presidency against what was then an overreaching Congress. (I know, it seems hard to believe in today's world, but that's what Johnson had to deal with.) But as Vice President, he stepped up to the role of symbolically trying to reunify the nation, to reach out to the people who had fought against the Union and let them know that there was a home for them again.

So, it is possible to form a list, or at least the top and bottom of one. I really don't think there's much that we can do to sort out the muddled middle of the list -- it's senseless to take a John Nance Garner and decide, well, let's call him #23, but George Dallas, he was a little better, so we'll make him #22. To even attempt such a thing requires a deeper knowledge of American political and legal history than a lot of people possess -- even me and I think I've gotten pretty obscure here as it is. But I'm not the first to confront the issue.

If forced to choose, I think I'd start with such a list with these guys first:

1. John Calhoun -- for laying the groundwork that led to the Civil War.
2. Aaron Burr -- for killing Alexander Hamilton, inciting war with Spain, and apparent commission of treason.
3. Spiro Agnew -- for being a corrupt, petty bastard who presaged his President's fall from grace.
4. Thomas Marshall -- for letting himself get edged out of power by the First Lady.
5-11 (tie). In no particular order, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, William Rufus King, Henry Wilson, Thomas Hendricks, Garret Hobart, and James Sherman -- for dying in office and thus rendering themselves unable to fulfill their singular duty of being alive to be President if necessary.
12. Schuyler Colfax -- for nearly bringing down his President's Administration into the biggest corruption scandal in American history.
13. John Adams -- for getting hooted out of the Senate and ruining whatever chance there was of the Presidency having a direct hand in guiding legislation. (He made a fine President, by the way, particularly considering that Washington was a hard act to follow -- but he was not a good Vice President.)
14. Dan Quayle -- for allowing himself to be made into a laughingstock, whether deservedly or not.
15. Thomas Jefferson -- for four years of stabbing his President in the back. (Also a very fine President, but not such a good Vice President.)

At the "best VPs" end of the list, I'd have to put all the men who actually did the real job of Vice President -- which is taking over and becoming President themselves in an emergency situation. So that would be John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. Of them all, I admire Gerald Ford the most, Roosevelt next, and both Johnsons right after him -- but it's difficult to separate their deeds as Vice President from their deeds as President. And Tyler, for setting the precedent, should get a high spot, too. Also worth a mention would be Charles Dawes, who was the first American Vice President to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cheney? I'd downgrade him for his scary vision of a nearly autocratic Presidency and his efforts to make that vision a reality; but I'd upgrade him for competence, political juice, and contribution to the effectiveness of his President's Administration. Really, I think that puts him pretty close to dead center of the list, at least until we move along in our history and start to gain some perspective freer from contemporary political biases than we possibly can be while Cheney is still holding the office.

NOTE: Wikipedia was not used in the drafting of this post.

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