The President’s Understudy

“I am vice president.  In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” -John Adams

I shall not waste a moment of your time proffering my thoughts about whom Mitt Romney might select as his running mate against President Obama and Vice President Biden.  Suffice to say he will pick somebody—probably within a week of the Republican National Convention, which begins August 27—and we can discuss What It Means when he does.  The guessing game the media indulges in beforehand is exactly that—a game.

On the other hand, the subject of the vice presidency itself is well worth broaching around this time in the election cycle, if only to distract us from the general stench of nonsensical nothingness that tends to dominate the scene here in the dog days of summer.

As I see it, any consideration of the second-highest office in the land must include the above observation from John Adams, the inaugural holder of the position.  From its inception, the gig has entailed precisely two constitutional duties.  The office-holder is president of the Senate and entitled to cast a tie-breaking vote, and he shall become president of the country should the office become vacant in mid-term.

The second of these commissions, you might agree, is a bit more exciting than the first.  Even before the current rule about the Senate needing a 60-vote “supermajority” to get anything passed, the role of tie-breaking was a fairly infrequent one.  Only six vice presidents in history have executed more than ten, the most recent of these being Schuyler Colfax, second-in-command under General Grant.  Dick Cheney cast eight tie-breaking votes during his tenure.  Thus far, Vice President Biden has cast none at all.

The matter of assuming the presidency on a moment’s notice, however, offers a frightfully rich history, indeed.  The numbers alone send a chill down the spine:  Out of 42 individuals who have held the nation’s highest office, 34 have come out alive.  Four were assassinated; four more died in office of natural causes.  (To say nothing of the myriad failed assassination attempts down the years, plus the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.)

Alarming, then, to consider what little thought many presidents have paid the role for much of the country’s history.

In the election of 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped his sitting vice president, Henry A. Wallace, and replaced him with a man he had barely met, one Harry S Truman, who was selected more or less by committee in the waning hours of the Democratic convention.  A minor point of historical trivia, no doubt, except for the small matter of Roosevelt proceeding to die a scant five weeks into his term, deeding the country to Truman whom, apart from anything else, Roosevelt had not troubled to enlighten on matters of the atomic bomb.  Quite the learning curve to bequest, wouldn’t you say?

From this anecdote alone, we should understand Mitt Romney’s—or anyone’s—selection of a running mate as a litmus test for whether he is a serious person who respects the gravity of the office he seeks.  John McCain, opting in 2008 for a first-term governor with no evident grasp of national affairs or the English language, demonstrated he is not.  Obama’s selection of Biden—a six-term senator with political experience out the wazoo—suggested he is, as did George W. Bush’s selection of Cheney, himself a 30-year public servant, eight years prior.

For an aspiring or sitting president, the office of constitutional understudy cannot be a pleasant one to ponder:  By definition, it is a mark of one’s mortality, an omnipresent reminder that the Most Powerful Man in the World is replaceable.  Some have interpreted McCain’s ridiculous selection of Sarah Palin as a form of arrogance:  He may well have thought Palin unready for the job, but he figured it didn’t matter because he was never going to die.

Alas, the president of the United States is, in fact, as mortal as the rest of us—if not more so—and the existence of the vice president is rooted in the assumption not that the president might check out in office, but that he will.  That, finally, is what one must most bear in mind when Romney unveils his political spouse:  The distance separating the two is not a heartbeat—as the common maxim would have it—but the lack thereof.

To Mr. Adams’ point, the job is, potentially, a constitutional big bang:  Everything, through a near-instantaneous alchemy, from nothing at all.

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