The best and worst vice presidents ever

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As Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence prepare to square off in this year’s sole vice presidential debate, it’s worth taking a moment to analyze the history of the office they seek to occupy next year.

The story of the vice presidency, like that of the presidency, is perhaps best told through the experiences of those individual vice presidents who left the biggest mark on the office. While there are many presidents whose names are widely known, only a handful of vice presidents are remembered—and with good reason. As one vice president famously remarked, the authors of the Constitution so neutered the position that in its own right it is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” More than two centuries later, however, the position is much stronger than our forefathers had ever conceived of it—although even during the early years of the republic, it was always full of colorful characters.

Hall of Fame

John Adams – The first vice president

John Trumbull's portrait of John AdamsJohn Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

We can start with America’s first vice president, John Adams. Although best known for going on to become America’s second president, Adams left his mark on the vice presidency in notable ways—even if it wasn’t always for the best. As his biographer points out, Adams was seldom consulted by President Washington when it came to either policy or politics, setting the precedent for veep powerlessness that would last for a century-and-a-half. When he tried to take on a more active role presiding over the Senate—one of the vice president’s constitutionally-designated responsibilities—he was criticized for his pompous lectures. Despite casting the tie-breaking vote a record 31 times, he ultimately became despondent about just how little influence he really had. He later complained to his wife Abigail Adams: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson – The vice president who really hated his boss

Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas JeffersonRebrandt Peale via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Thomas Jefferson didn’t mind limiting his role as vice president to maintaining procedure during Senate debates. Indeed, because he had been fascinated by parliamentary rules for most of his adult life, he actually enjoyed presiding over debates and impressing both sides with his impartiality. That said, Jefferson was bound to be a controversial figure during his vice presidency due to a quirk in the Constitution that awarded that office to the loser in the previous presidential election. This meant that Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, had to serve under the administration of a Federalist, John Adams. Perhaps inevitably, Jefferson tried to undermine Adams’ policies throughout his administration, resulting in a rift between the two old friends that lasted until after Jefferson’s presidency ended more than a decade later. Fortunately for our country, the Twelfth Amendment corrected this flaw and was ratified in enough time to impact the very next presidential election.

John Tyler – The vice president who made the office matter

Daguerrotype of John Tylervia Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

John Tyler may be our most important vice president, since he was the first one whom history required to ascend to the office of the presidency. Although he had a reasonably cordial relationship with President William Henry Harrison, there was no reason to believe that he would be any more powerful under Harrison’s administration than any of the previous vice presidents had been during their tenures. One month into his presidency, however, Harrison unexpectedly took ill and died, immediately elevating Tyler to his place per the Constitution. Because no vice president had reached the presidency in this way, many of Harrison’s cabinet officers and advisers wanted to minimize his role. Tyler, however, insisted that he wasn’t merely an Acting President, but the legitimate President of the United States, and that he deserved the same respect and commanded the same authority as the nine presidents who came before him. Although his presidency proved tempestuous, Tyler’s interpretation won out, forcing future generations of American voters to consider their vice presidents as seriously as they did their presidents when casting their ballots.

Richard Nixon – A surprisingly solid vice president

American vice-president Richard Nixon talking to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1959)via Getty

Despite his infamous presidency, Richard Nixon’s vice presidency was actually one of the nation’s finest. After keeping his place on the Republican ticket through a brilliantly performed televised speech, Nixon became President Dwight Eisenhower’s de facto ambassador to the world, a role which he excelled in fulfilling. For instance, when touring Latin America in 1958, Nixon faced angry Marxist mobs in both Lima, Peru and Caracas, Venezuela, on the latter occasion even coming close to death. The following year, when touring the Soviet Union in a goodwill tour, he held his own in an impromptu debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what were subsequently dubbed the “Kitchen Debate.” Although Nixon’s power as vice president was later minimized when Eisenhower couldn’t remember any major ideas that Nixon had contributed which the president adopted, this was unfair not only because Eisenhower’s remark was taken out of context, but because Nixon actually did a great deal to make the vice presidential office more influential.

Joe Biden – The vice president who should have run for president (again)

Democratic National Convention: Day ThreeGetty/Justin Sullivan

With a favorable rating of 57 percent, I suspect some Democrats deeply regret Joseph Biden’s decision to not run for president in this election—and those regrets would no doubt be increased if Biden’s performance as vice president was more widely known. When it was time to save America from the fiscal cliff or push for necessary (if ultimately unsuccessful) gun control legislation, Biden served as President Barack Obama’s point man, trusted aide, and friend. He also saved Obama from a potential loss in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney through his stellar debate performance against the Republican vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. While Biden avoided crossing the lines of propriety that George W. Bush’s veep, Dick Cheney, regularly transgressed, he nevertheless became an integral player in the Obama presidency and has earned the right to be ranked as one of the better vice presidents our nation has had.

Hall of Shame

Aaron Burr – The vice president who killed someone

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.J. Mund via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Aaron Burr, without question, deserves to be ranked at the very top of the Hall of Shame. As the last vice president elected before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Burr schemed behind the scenes to get Congress to choose him as the new president instead of Jefferson. If the matter had not been resolved before Adams’ presidency ended, America (at that point less than a quarter-century old) would have had to continue without a president and almost certainly been plunged into crisis. When his last-ditch attempt to salvage his career—namely, becoming Governor of New York as a Federalist—was thwarted by Alexander Hamilton, Burr famously challenged Hamilton to a duel and then shot him to death. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the last time that a sitting vice president would make headlines by shooting someone (more on that later).

Andrew Johnson – The drunk vice president

pres_andrew_johnsonvia National Archives

Although Andrew Johnson is best known as the man who took over after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his ascension to the vice presidency is one of the most embarrassing our nation has ever seen. To understand why, turn to the words of an eyewitness who attended his inauguration, abolitionist Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan: “The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.” Not surprisingly, Johnson kept a low profile in the weeks after this speech, and the likelihood is that his vice presidency would have been an insignificant one had it not been for John Wilkes Booth’s bullet less than two months later. While Johnson’s sympathies for the Southern states would have likely doomed his presidency even if he hadn’t made a spectacle of himself as vice president, his bout of highly public drunkenness certainly didn’t help matters.

Thomas Marshall – The vice president who had one job (and failed)

thomas_r-_marshall_cph-3a40666via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Thomas Marshall served under Woodrow Wilson. When President Wilson went overseas to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I), he asked Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings—the first time any president had ever done so—and it seemed that Marshall’s influence over the office would be a positive one. After Wilson had a debilitating stroke in October 1919, however, civic duty compelled Marshall to inform the public and lead the nation for the final 17 months of the president’s term. Because Marshall felt insecure about his ability to effectively govern, however, he instead became complicit in a ruse by Wilson’s closest advisers to conceal the president’s condition and secretly govern the nation in his stead. Considering that a vice president’s main job is to take over in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or incapacitation, Marshall’s unwillingness to rise to the occasion wasn’t just a personal failure, but a national disgrace.

Spiro Agnew – The most corrupt vice president

Nixon And Agnew Wave On Campaign, c. 1968.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, is best known for being one of two vice presidents to resign. Unlike John Calhoun, though, who stepped down to protest President Andrew Jackson’s policies, Agnew left office because he was about to be indicted by the Justice Department for political corruption, including accepting bribes. Because he was the first president to step down after the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, he was replaced by Congressman Gerald Ford, and since Richard Nixon would have to resign due to Watergate less than a year later, Agnew’s corruption forced America to live under the presidency of its only unelected president (i.e., Ford). Ironically, because of Agnew’s trailblazing attacks on the so-called liberal media’s bias, he would have been in a prime position to lead America’s burgeoning conservative movement after Nixon left office. By failing to uphold ethical standards, Agnew denied himself the possibility of being Ronald Reagan before Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cheney – The vice president most like Darth Vader

Bush Makes Statement On War SupplementalGetty/Chip Somodevilla

It’s impossible to discuss the evolution of the vice presidency without arriving at Dick Cheney, who served as vice president under George W. Bush. Along with playing an instrumental role in convincing Bush to invade Iraq, Cheney was one of Bush’s chief overall policy advisers. In fact, he was so powerful that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert provided him with an office near the floor of the House of Representatives. Cheney’s ability to concentrate policymaking power in his own hands—and his disturbingly secretive disposition—became so notorious that The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for a four-part series of articles detailing just how much he had become the true President of the United States, despite Bush officially bearing that title. In addition to foreign policy, Cheney also upheld conservative orthodoxy in the development of economic policy and worked to promote business interests over environmental regulations. Of course, Cheney may ultimately be remembered best for sharing an odd distinction with Aaron Burr: having shot someone while in office—in his case, in a quail hunting accident.

If there is anything we can learn about the vice presidency for the upcoming debates, it is that the office has grown immensely since the days when it was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” he precedents established by Cheney and Biden make it very likely that Kaine or Pence would play a meaningful part in the administrations of their Commanders-in-Chief. The vice presidency may not be as interesting as the presidency, but it matters—making it worthwhile to pay attention to what Kaine and Pence say on Tuesday night.