The Modern Vice Presidency

The transformation of the vice presidency has coincided with the rapid expansion of the federal government and the powers of the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt's sudden death in 1945 and Harry Truman's unpre-paredness to succeed him put political leaders of the day on notice that the vice presidency needed to take on more importance. This became even more urgent with the onset of the cold war only a few years later.

The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower marked a turning point for the vice presidency. “I personally believe the Vice President of the United States should never be a nonentity. I believe he should be used. I believe he should have a very useful job,” Ike once remarked at a press conference.

Eisenhower lived up to those words, giving his number-two man Richard Nixon a more prominent role than any previous vice president. Nixon served as the party spokesperson and political troubleshooter, and was active in foreign affairs. He traveled to fifty-eight nations — far and away the most of any vice president to that time — and conducted several sensitive diplomatic missions on Ike's behalf. Twice when Eisenhower fell ill for long stretches of time, the vice president surprised many with his reassuring presence. Nixon's signature moment as Ike's sidekick occurred in 1959, when he faced off with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an impromptu debate while the two toured the American National Exhibition in Moscow. The moment was captured live on television, and in an instant elevated the status and prestige of the vice presidency.

Lyndon Johnson picked up on Nixon's role as goodwill ambassador to the world, globetrotting to meet with foreign heads of state on dozens of occasions. As a former Senate majority leader, he played a part in devising the Kennedy administration's legislative strategy — particularly for the Civil Rights bill — and was also given broad responsibilities with the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Johnson's time as vice president prepared him well for assuming the presidency following President Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963.

After serving in the shadows of Ronald Reagan for eight years, Vice President George H. W. Bush faced the daunting task of winning the presidency on his own. One prominent news magazine wrote that his biggest obstacle was overcoming the “wimp” factor. Many felt that he succeeded in doing so. Bush became the second sitting vice president to be elected president.

Spiro Agnew's tenure as Richard Nixon's vice president represented something of a setback for the office. Nixon had plucked the one-term governor from relative obscurity in 1968, but never really developed a role for him. Agnew is best remembered for his scathing attacks against the news media and the “elite establishment,” and for resigning the office in disgrace after pleading nolo contendere to the charge of income tax evasion.

The Option of Co-Presidency

For a brief time in the summer of 1980, there was talk of creating a “dream” Republican presidential ticket of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, with the former president serving as Reagan's vice president. Reagan was attracted to the idea of having Ford's experience at his disposal, and Ford envisioned a kind of “co-presidency” in which power would be shared. The two camps couldn't come to an agreement, however, and talks of the co-presidency were scuttled.

Al Gore and Dick Cheney

Since the early 1990s, the vice presidency has taken another leap forward in stature and importance. During that time, it has completed the transition from an office of ridicule to one of the most powerful positions in Washington. Former president Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush are largely responsible for this final metamorphosis, having given their vice presidents more responsibility than did any previous administration.

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