In a few days, Joseph Biden will be sworn in for a second term as vice-president, which is generally considered to be the graveyard of political careers. The Texan John Nance Gardner, who after 32 years in the House of Representatives gave up the position of speaker to serve as Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president during his first two terms, characterized the job as not "worth a bucket of warm spit," and "almost wholly unimportant."
Of the 47 vice presidents in our history, the only names we are likely to remember are the 14 who later became president, and several of them are relatively unknown. Of those 14, nine rose to the presidency on the death or resignation of the president. Only five became president by being elected to the office.
In the early years of our country, the Constitution provided that the vice president would be the presidential candidate who came in second in the Electoral College vote for the presidency.
As it turned out, George Washington's vice president, John Adams, succeeded him, and John Adams' vice president, Thomas Jefferson (who had run against him and lost in 1796) succeeded him.
Due to the emergence of political parties, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, calling for an independent Electoral College vote for the vice president, was ratified in time for the 1804 election, so the president and vice president would not be from opposing parties.
Since then, only three vice presidents have succeeded the president they served with by winning election to the office: Martin Van Buren (succeeding Andrew Jackson in 1836), George H. W. Bush (succeeding Ronald Reagan in 1988), and Richard M. Nixon (more on him later), Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, who lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, but narrowly beat Hubert Humphrey eight years later.
Eight vice presidents have become president as a result of the death of a sitting president, four from natural causes and four by assassination. The former were: John Tyler in 1841 (on the death of William Henry Harrison after only one month in office); Millard Fillmore in 1850 (on the death of Zachary Taylor); Calvin Coolidge in 1923 (on the death of Warren Harding); and Harry Truman in 1945 (on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt after only three months of his fourth term). Of these, Coolidge and Truman went on to be elected to a full four-year term.
Those who have risen to the office on the assassination of the president were: Andrew Johnson in 1865 (on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, only six weeks into his second term); Chester Arthur in 1881 (on the assassination of James Garfield, after only six months in office); Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 (on the assassination of William McKinley six months into his second term); and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963 (on the assassination of John F. Kennedy). Of these, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson went on to be elected to full four-year terms.
Finally we come to Richard Nixon, who after his close election race against Hubert Humphrey in 1968, must have let fear get the better of his judgment in 1972. In spite of the fact that the polls showed him to be well ahead of his opponent, he ordered the infamous burglary of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate office complex. Faced with the certainty of impeachment and the likelihood of conviction, he elected to resign from the presidency on Aug. 8, 1974, and Gerald R. Ford became president. (Rumor has it that more bottles of champagne were sold in the U.S. on that day than on any other day in our history.)
Two other unique events occurred on that date.
Richard Nixon became the only president in our 225-year history to resign from the office of president of the United States, and Gerald Ford became our only unelected president, having never been elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency.
Nixon had appointed Ford as vice president in 1973, when vice president Spiro Agnew resigned under tax-evasion charges on graft payments made to him by contractors when he was governor of Maryland.
Ford then narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter in his bid for election to a full term in 1976, largely due to the unpopularity of his pardoning of Nixon from any federal crimes. Ironically, Ford was later praised for that action as having been in the best interests of the country, and for having the political courage to do it.
"As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at email@example.com.