Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

A Heartbeat Away from the Presidency

by Richard Gunderman, IUPUI

Nine times in our nation’s history a US vice president has ascended to the office of president.  In eight of these cases, the vice president assumed the office on the death of the president, and in one case, as the result of a presidential resignation.  The fact that Joe Biden would be 86 years old at the end of a second term lends special urgency to the saying that every vice president is but “one heartbeat away” from the presidency.  The frequency with which presidents have required replacements calls to mind the importance of the vice presidency, and a brief review of this history demonstrates the importance of choosing presidential running mates wisely.

The first individual to ascend to the presidency unelected (that is, not elected as president) was John Tyler.  William Henry Harrison, elected in 1841 with the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” a reference to Harrison’s military exploits, died after only 32 days in office, making Tyler the nation’s 10th president.  A defender of states’ rights, including slavery, Tyler endured the resignation of most of his cabinet and alienated both major political parties in the early stages of his presidency, earning the sobriquet, “His Ascendancy.”  He attempted to function as a political independent and mounted a run in 1844 as a third-party “Democratic-Republican” candidate but withdrew from the race.  Years later, when the Civil War began, he aligned himself with the Confederacy but soon died and was buried under a Confederate flag.

Millard Fillmore became the 13th president of the US upon the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850.  Born into poverty, Fillmore had served in the US House of Representatives as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee before securing the vice-presidential nomination.  Largely ignored by Taylor, one of his first acts as president was to dismiss his predecessor’s cabinet, and although he personally opposed slavery, he felt that the federal government lacked the authority to overturn it.  Eventually, he supported a package of legislation that included the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of escaped slaves to their owners.  Fillmore unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination in 1852 and tried again in 1856, winning only one state.  Like Tyler, he is typically rated among the nation’s least effective presidents.

Andrew Johnson was the first vice president to ascend to the presidency after an assassination, succeeding the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1865.  Like Fillmore, Johnson was born into poverty, and he enjoyed two fewer years of formal schooling than Lincoln, which is to say none.  Lincoln had selected the Tennessean as a gesture toward national unity, but Johnson bears the dubious distinction of having shown up intoxicated for his own inauguration as vice president.  Upon assuming the presidency, he followed Lincoln in moving quickly to restore the seceded states to the Union, though without protections such as suffrage for the newly freed slaves.  The resultant conflict with the Republican-dominated Congress led to his impeachment in 1868, although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote.  This and his overridden vetoes to block full citizenship for former slaves place him near the bottom of presidents.

James Garfield, the only clergyperson to serve as president, was assassinated in 1881, raising Chester Arthur to the presidency.  Arthur had been part of New York’s highly lucrative patronage system, attracting little national attention, but Garfield, who was from the western state of Ohio, felt that he needed an easterner to balance the ticket.  After becoming the nation’s 20th president, Arthur turned against the patronage system, arguing that appointments should be based on merit, but a kidney ailment prevented him from governing vigorously, and his effort to remain in office at the conclusion of his term was only half-hearted.  In office, he reduced the term of exclusion of Chinese immigration to 10 years and he instituted reforms that dramatically enhanced the US Navy.  Today Arthur generally ranks in the bottom third of presidents, though he is more respected than his unelected presidential predecessors.

Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest person ever to assume the office of president at 42 years, represents a dramatic improvement.  Sickly as a child, Roosevelt assumed a vigorous lifestyle, established himself as a popular writer, and became a leading reformer in New York politics.  Elevated to the presidency at the assassination of William McKinley, the 25th president, in 1901, Roosevelt quickly developed a reputation as a trust buster and progressive.  He strongly supported conservation and established national parks, won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Russo-Japanese peace, and began construction of the Panama Canal, cruising to reelection in 1904.  He groomed his ally, William Taft, to succeed him as president in 1908, but a falling out with Taft led him to campaign again for president in 1912, splitting the ticket and placing Woodrow Wilson in the White House.  He is often ranked in the top tier of presidents.

Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president in 1923, after the death of Warren Harding.  A New England lawyer who had been born on Independence Day, he developed a reputation as a small-government conservative, and his taciturnity earned him the moniker “Silent Cal.”  Like Roosevelt, Coolidge won the next presidential election in his own right but declined to run again in 1928, saying that 10 years in office would be “too long.”  During his administration, he turned around the corruption that had plagued the Harding administration and presided over a period of rapid economic growth.  He also staunchly opposed racism and strongly supported women’s suffrage.  Often ranked near the middle of the pack of presidents, Coolidge is often blamed for advancing economic policies that may have helped to spawn the Great Depression.

Harry Truman became the 33rd president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, who had just been elected to his fourth consecutive term in office.  Hailing from Independence, Missouri, Turman served in World War I and operated a men’s clothing store before entering politics.  As a US senator, he conducted investigations into waste in the military.  Truman only learned of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb upon assuming office, but in an effort to shorten World War II, he authorized its use against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the war, he supported the Marshall Plan to help rebuild war-ravaged nations and presided over the early years of the so-called Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Truman secured a surprise win in his first campaign for the presidency, but facing heavy criticism, he elected not to run again in 1952.  Truman is often ranked in the upper tier of presidents.

The most recent vice president to assume the presidency on the death of the incumbent was Lyndon Johnson, who was sworn into office hours after the assassination of the 35th president, John F. Kennedy.  A high school teacher who later served as a member of both the US House and Senate, Johnson is often considered one of the greatest leaders in senate history.  His own campaign for the presidency in 1964 produced a landslide victory.  One of Johnson’s most notable initiatives as president was his so-called Great Society program, which aimed to promote civil rights, increase access to healthcare, creating Medicare and Medicaid, and expand public services.  Yet his popularity suffered greatly due to his expansion of military intervention in Vietnam.  By 1968, the war and domestic unrest had so undermined his support that he elected not to run for another term.  Johnson is often ranked near the top 10 presidents.

The most recent vice president to assume the presidency was also the only president in US history who was never elected to either office, Gerald Ford.  Appointed to the vice presidency after the 1973 resignation of Spiro Agnew, Ford succeeded the 37th president, Richard Nixon, in 1974.  A US House member from Michigan for over 25 years, he assumed office at a difficult time in the nation’s history.  Trust in public officials had been seriously eroded by the Watergate scandal and its aftermath, South Vietnam collapsed in the first year of his presidency, and the US economy was in its worse shape since the Great Depression.  Adding to Ford’s travails was his decision to pardon Nixon, which proved deeply unpopular at the time but has since garnered more support.  Ford is generally ranked at or just below the middle of the pack of US presidents.

This review of the history of vice presidents who ascended unelected to the presidency makes very clear that the choice of a vice presidential running mate should never be taken lightly.  No matter how attractive presidential candidates may appear on their own terms, a poor choice of running mate should give voters serious pause.  Especially in its early years, our nation was ill served when poorly prepared and ill-equipped individuals ascended to the presidency.  Moreover, a poorly chosen running mate can torpedo a presidential candidate’s prospects for election.  For example, John McCain had met with Sarah Palin only a few times before choosing her for the Republican ticket, an unpopular decision he came to rue.

Vice presidential running mates should not merely enhance the ticket by providing balance in terms of geography, political experience, or age.  They should also be prepared to assume the office of the presidency.  Once in office, presidents should ensure that they play an active role in governing, avoiding what would otherwise be a long learning curve should they assume the office.  Presidents who keep their vice presidents on the sidelines, uninformed and unengaged, do the nation no favor, and in some cases the lack of preparation has caused considerable harm.  This is a trap into which even our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, fell in his choice of Johnson as his second-term running mate.

Finally, presidential candidates need to do their due diligence in selecting a running mate.  This means taking months rather than weeks to make the selection, and making a sincere effort to get to know the candidate who will join them on the ticket.  The vetting process needs to be thorough and focused not just on disqualifying factors, but also genuine strengths a running mate would offer as president.  And when such candidates are named, all voters should seriously consider whether they would find them well-suited to the office of president.  Presidential candidates need to know their running mates, but so too does the electorate, and vice-presidential candidates should be rigorously tested on the campaign trail.

Voters can tell a lot about presidential candidates by their choice of a running mate.  Those who fail to take the process seriously demonstrate that they may not have the nation’s best interests at heart.  Likewise, those who focus primarily on the ticket’s electoral prospects instead of the fitness of their running mate to assume the presidency are guilty of putting their own interests before the country’s.  Yet the ultimate responsibility rests not with the candidates but the electorate, the people, who need to look carefully at every aspiring vice president, ensuring that individuals assume the office only if, should the need arise, they would be truly prepared and committed to carrying out their presidential duties effectively.

Richard Gunderman is John A Campbell Professor of Radiology; Bicentennial Professor; and Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. 


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