Regardless of our quadrennial fascination with the Vice Presidential dog and pony show, it’s still a statistical truism that America doesn’t vote for its Vice Presidents. But screw it up, and you could queer your patch but good, and wind up going from the top of every newshour on MSNBC to virtually ignored in the Piggly Wiggly by Thanksgiving.
As Jason Linkins noted in The Huffington Post today, no one’s learned that lesson harder and with more consequence than the 1972 Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, when he signed off on Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, who turned out to be a man with a deeply troubled past that included electro-shock treatment for depression.
It wasn’t always like this. Before the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804 and replaced Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, the person who was awarded the Vice Presidency was the Presidential runner-up in the Electoral Vote count. The electors had two votes they could cast for President, and the candidate with the most votes would be President, and the one with the second-most, Vice President. Presented in a modern context, you can understand what a problem this might be if Albert Gore and John Kerry had become George W. Bush’s Vice Presidents. In any case, there was no pageant, no vetting, no comparative profiles in the leading media outlets of the day. Number two was Number Two. Period.
The glaring problem with this system was that it was inherently manipulable. When Federalist John Adams ran against Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800 , Adams lost the electoral vote by 73 to 65–with Burr also grabbing 73 electoral votes. Ruh-roh. It wasn’t supposed to work that way. Burr, it turns out, engaged in a bit of arm-twisting behind the scenes, albeit not as effectively as he could have, but in the end, he and his presumptive President were tied in electoral votes. The election was left to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. The Federalists had no love for Jefferson, and the vote was stalemated for a week. Jefferson eventually emerged victorious, but it was clear that this was no way to choose an Executive Branch Number Two.
With the passage and ratification of the 12th Amendment, electors now had to cast two distinct votes–one for President, and one for Vice President.
And thus our current Veepstakes was born. What ensued over the next 200-odd years was a fine mess indeed. There were the elections of 1804 and 1808 where the party nominated and elected George Clinton, who’d been circling the drain since 1795, when he confessed, in his farewell as New York’s Governor, “I have been so long dealing in Speeches that I have found it difficult to draft one for the last session without committing Plagiarism.” His detractors were less complimentary. Said John Quincy Adams, ““Mr. Clinton is totally ignorant of all the most common forms of proceeding in the Senate…a worse choice than Mr. Clinton could scarcely have been made.”
Governor Clinton was elected Vice President first for Thomas Jefferson, and then for James Madison. He died in office. Under President Madison, his seat was never filled until Madison ran again in 1812 and selected Elbridge Gerry–who also died in office.
Ever since, the selection of the person who was to be the second-highest officeholder in the land has been little more than an afterthought. Until the 25th Amendment, which codified the rules of Presidential succession, was ratified in 1967, the office of the Vice President–the second-highest office in the land–was left vacant for a mind-boggling 37 years.
No wonder then that history has given us the likes of John C. Calhoun, who served as VP under both Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson–who said on his deathbead that “Posterity will condemn me more because I was persuaded not to hang John C. Calhoun as a traitor than for any other act in my life.” Or Richard Mentor Johnson who held and married his slaves, and sold one because she had the audacity to leave him. Or Hannibal Hamlin, who didn’t have his boss President Lincoln’s courage and chose to show his Civil War mettle as a seaman in the Maine Coast Guard. Or Spiro Agnew who couldn’t let go of his contractor kickbacks when he was Governor of Maryland and accepted bundles of money in his Vice Presidential office.
Jason Linkins’ article on former Senator George McGovern today invoked the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm.” To your own candidacy, as the article implied in context.
Senator McGovern’s first Veep pick was a disaster. After being rebuffed by Ted Kennedy and a number of other party luminaries, he settled, with dangerously-little vetting, on Senator Thomas Eagleton from Missouri. They hadn’t finalized the would-be nominee’s travel schedule or his acceptance speech before it was leaked by persons in the know that he’d been hospitalized for depression in the 1960s and had undergone electro-shock therapy. Mental health issues attract more sympathy in 2008 than they did in 1972, and no one in this country does electro-shock therapy anymore (Guantanamo possibly excluded). This was frightening stuff in 1972.
McGovern didn’t help himself in his handling of the issue. He initially pledged to support his nominee “1000 percent.” That number dropped precipitously over the next few days, before the Senator decided to cut the Man from Missouri. It took a machete, as Eagleton wasn’t willing to go at first. After the buttons had already been printed, McGovern was boxed into the humiliating position of having to change horses ten feet out of the gate. Eagleton would only cop to being “one rock in a landslide,” but his selection was the rock that led the avalanche.
This is the first substantive decision you’ll make as a President in audition, and it isn’t one you want to screw up.
On the other hand, the axiom is true that “voters don’t vote for Vice President,” so you do have a certain amount of wiggle room. After all, America didn’t hold Dan Quayle against George H.W. Bush.
It’s still high stakes, though. As dubious as many of these selections have been, there have only been 43 of them who have ever taken the oath (excluding Adams, Jefferson, and Burr–all pre 12th Amendment Veeps). That’s a fairly small fraternity, no matter how insignificant their office accomplishments might be, and that’s why we pay attention. It’s unfortunate for those of us who relish the tantalizing drama of a prominent public figure sending a bullet through his left foot, but there likely aren’t many Tom Eagletons who are roaming around the short list. George McGovern’s advice is salient, but probably unnecessary. As long as Senator Obama doesn’t consider the charisma of Al Sharpton or decides to definitively nail down the Illinois African-American vote by inviting former Congressman and convicted statutory rapist Mel Reynolds out of retirement, he shouldn’t do much harm to his candidacy.