Vice President As Successor

The vice president's most important duty — or, as some would argue, its sole reason for existence — is to succeed the president in the case of death, resignation, or incapacitation. As Woodrow Wilson's often quoted vice president Thomas Marshall put it, “The only business of the Vice President is to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of health of the President.” Though a slight exaggeration, it captures the essence of the office succinctly.

The Successors

In our nation's history, nine vice presidents have ascended to the White House following the death or resignation of a president. Four of the presidents died of natural causes, four were assassinated, and only one resigned.

When Vice President John Tyler learned of William Henry Harrison's death, he was at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. The news reached Tyler a day after Harrison died, and it took Tyler another day to travel back to the capital. During this two-day period, there was no president — the longest such vacancy in our nation's history.

Given the ambiguities in the Constitution regarding the specific nature of presidential succession (that is, whether the vice president assumed the presidency itself, or just the powers of the presidency), the first four vice presidents to take office through succession were considered by many to be illegitimate. This sentiment was so strong that all four — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur — failed to win renomination by their own parties for an independent term of their own. None of the four served with any distinction, and Andrew Johnson was actually impeached over a political decision.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first vice president elevated to office to win a full term on his own, when he trounced Democrat Alton Parker in 1904. Ironically, the Republican Party bosses had chosen Roosevelt as William McKinley's running mate because they disliked his progressive platform as governor of New York, and wanted to put him in a position where he would be powerless!

When Harry S. Truman took office following Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, the United States was at war with Germany and Japan. Roosevelt had kept Truman in the dark about the development of the atomic bomb, so it came as a great surprise when Truman was informed of the weapon only hours after being sworn in as president.

Richard Nixon was the first president to replace his vice president, when he appointed Gerald Ford to the office following Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation in 1973. The following year, President Gerald Ford nominated New York governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vacancy created by Ford's ascension to the presidency.

Twenty-fifth Amendment

Following President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, political leaders realized that it was time to clarify the succession process. In 1967 the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified. It established four points:

  • In the case of the president's death or removal from office, the vice president becomes president.

  • If the office of vice president is vacated, the president must nominate a new vice president, to be confirmed by a majority in both houses of Congress. (Prior to this, the vice presidency remained unoccupied if the office was vacated either through death or succession.)

  • If the president is temporarily unable to discharge the duties of the office, he must inform both the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate in writing, at which time the vice president becomes acting president. Once the president is able to resume his duties, he must again inform both Congressional leaders in writing. In 1985, President Reagan was the first to invoke this provision while undergoing a procedure to remove a cancerous growth from his colon.

  • If a majority of the cabinet members (as well as the vice president) determine that the president is unable to discharge the powers of the office, they must inform the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore in the Senate in writing, at which time the vice president would become acting president. This provision has not yet been tested.

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