Morris: Indiana, Still the Mother of Vice Presidents?

October 12, 2020

by Leo Morris

Putting a vice president into the Oval Office is like putting a new Supreme Court justice on the bench. You might think you know what you’re getting, but people who are given such power have an alarming tendency to do whatever they want to. 

Lyndon Johnson was another John Kennedy and then some, but Richard Nixon was no Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush was no Ronald Reagan.

Come to think of it, it’s sort of like letting the 16-year-old with a brand-new license drive the family car. You hand over the keys and say a little prayer.

I doubt if too many people actually were, but that’s what we should have been thinking as we watched (if we watched) the debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Which one would we feel safest turning the keys over to? Would this country be better off if we woke up one morning in the hands of President Pence or President Harris?

Many conservatives are happy with the current president’s policies, but Donald Trump is at heart a populist. Pence is much the purer conservative, so he would likely take an administration further right. Joe Biden poses as a centrist but is really a liberal at heart, and Harris seems even more so, so her administration would probably go further left.

If that weren’t enough to think about – further right or further left – we also have to wonder about what devilment individual quirks might lead to. There are always plenty of issues to go off the rails over, and all of our presidents have managed to find at least one.

The vice presidency has never been exactly a revered office. 

John Adams, the first man to hold the position, said his country had “in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s V.P., said of the office: “There were once two brothers.  One ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president, and neither was ever heard of again.”

And John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously said that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit” (though the actual word, sanitized by many historians, was much earthier).

Over the years, presidents started trusting their seconds-in-command with more than staying quiet except when being a cheerleader for the chief executive’s policies. Starting with Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter, modern vice presidents have had much greater power; some people even said Dick Cheney was more the president than George W. Bush. President Obama put Biden in charge of our Iraq policy, and Pence has led the COVID-19 task force.

But the chief job of the vice president – and other than presiding over the Senate, the only constitutional role – is to simply be there to take over if needed.

That’s something Marshall failed utterly at.

Like Pence, Marshall assumed the vice presidency after serving as Hoosier governor. In Indiana, he was well liked for his wit and sense of humor, which were not the qualities he needed when Wilson suffered an incapacitating stroke in early October of 1919. Several Cabinet officials and congressional leaders from both parties urged Marshall to take power, which Wilson could not exercise but would not give up.

But the Constitution did not specify exactly how a vice president should take over the duties of the president, and the cautious Marshall refused to act without a written request from the president or a joint resolution of Congress, neither of which was forthcoming. So, for three months, the United States was essentially leaderless, though some historians say Wilson’s wife Edith was our de facto president.

Today, we have the 25h Amendment, providing more specifics for presidential succession and a mechanism for filling a vacant vice presidency. It was authored, in the wake of concerns spurred by President Kennedy’s assassination, by Hoosier Birch Bayh, who was elected to the Senate before his son Evan was elected governor and then went on to the Senate. Bayh pere served three terms in the Senate before being defeated by Dan Quayle, who went on to be, well, vice president.

Whew. Marshall, Bayh, Quayle, Pence. Lot of Hoosiers there. 

For what it’s worth, Indiana has had six V.P.’s, second only to New York. Due to its importance as an important swing state from about 1860 to 1916, the state was once known as the Mother of Vice Presidents. Not bad for a small state in the middle of flyover country.

The odds of the 25th Amendment coming into play during the next president’s term are pretty high. Donald Trump is 74, and already has the distinction of being the oldest ever elected to the presidency, a record Biden, who will be 78 years old on Inauguration Day in 2021, would surpass; Ronald Reagan was 77 when he left office. Both candidates have faced questions about their physical and mental well-being.

President Pence. President Harris.

Just saying.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.



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