Raising the Bar on Vice Presidents

Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics
notorious Tina Fey lookalike

Sarah Palin: mavericky!

A lot of people have made the observation that Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and running-mate of John McCain, is obviously not qualified to be president. Like, for instance, columnist George Will, who said that Palin is “obviously not qualified to be president.” Others who have pointed out the obvious are Chuck Hagel, Madeleine Albright, David Brooks, and politically astute members of a newly discovered species of carnivorous sponges found living in the waters off the coast of Antarctica. For good measure, McCain economic advisor Carly Fiorina added that Palin isn’t qualified to run a major corporation either. Fiorina, it should be noted, mysteriously disappeared after making that remark.

OK, so we’ve established that she isn’t qualified to be president of the United States or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If we were so inclined I’m sure we could add a wide range of jobs for which Palin is also not qualified, such as astronaut, cowboy, school crossing guard, ship ballast, etc. But is Palin qualified to be vice president? Senator Barbara Boxer of California, speaking of Palin, seems pretty certain: “She isn’t qualified to be vice president.” Ouch, that’s gotta’ sting.

That, of course, raises the question: what exactly are the qualifications for being vice president? The drafters of the Constitution thought so little of the office that they didn’t include any qualifications for the vice presidency. It was left to the drafters of the twelfth amendment to mention, as an afterthought, that “no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.” That means the vice president must be at least 35 years old, a resident of the US for fourteen years, and a “natural born citizen.” So, unless Palin was “from her mother’s womb untimely ripp’d,” like Macduff or that creature in Alien, she seems to satisfy all of the minimal qualifications for the office. Of course, under those criteria, she’s also qualified to be president, but we already know, according to George Will and David Brooks and the sponges, that she isn’t. So what makes a person unqualified to be vice president?

Historical precedent can offer us some limited insight into this question. John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, vice president during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms, famously said that the vice presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Well, actually, he said that it wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss, but, this being a family blog and all, I won’t point that out. Garner, however, had a long and distinguished legislative career before being interred in the office, so despite his jaundiced view of the position he was, by all measures, qualified to be vice president.

totally unqualified

Chester A. Arthur: totally unqualified

Perhaps the most inexperienced vice president in American history was Chester Allen Arthur, who was elected as James Garfield’s running mate in 1880. Although many presidents have held no elective office other than that of president, Arthur has the distinction of being the only president who held no elective office other than that of vice president. Senator Roscoe Conkling, Arthur’s political patron, had Arthur installed in the post of collector of New York customs, a position of public trust that was traditionally used to enrich the holder of that office and all of his cronies. Arthur’s main accomplishment was that he was somewhat less obviously corrupt than most of his predecessors, and so his political resume was, if it can be believed, even more meager and undistinguished than Sarah Palin’s. The GOP picked Arthur for the vice presidential slot because it needed someone from the “Stalwart” wing of the party on the ticket and because it lacked the foresight to see that James Garfield would be assassinated less than a year into his term. Surprisingly, Arthur, as president, turned out to be less disastrous than feared, which may give some hope to the dedicated Palinistas out there.

rumpsy dumpsy

Richard Mentor Johnson: early victim of "jungle fever"

Maybe we just expect too much from vice presidents. Richard Mentor Johnson, Martin Van Buren’s vice president, ran largely on his reputation as the man who killed the native American leader Tecumseh during the War of 1812. “Rumpsy dumpsy, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh!” his partisans sang, and they meant it — especially the “rumpsy dumpsy” part. Johnson, however, was not particularly diligent about attending to the duties of his office. Almost immediately after being inaugurated, Johnson went back to his home in Kentucky in order to run a tavern and stayed there for nine months. He was also diddling the help, a tradition in Southern politics of which Strom Thurmond was only the most recent practitioner. His idiosyncratic take on race relations, in fact, led to Johnson being the only vice president elected by the senate under the terms of the twelfth amendment, as Virginia’s electors in the 1836 election refused to cast their ballots for him.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “if only I could be sure that Palin would run a tavern back in her home state rather than take the reins of office, I might just vote for McCain.” The problem, though, with comparing Palin to previous vice presidents like Johnson is that we actually expect vice presidents to do something in exchange for their federal paychecks. That, however, is a recent innovation in American politics. We can look back and see that the first “modern” vice president, i.e. one who actually did more than attend funerals and occasionally preside over the senate, was Walter Mondale, a veteran of the senate who was instrumental in assisting the rustic Jimmy Carter to navigate the intricacies of national politics. All vice presidents who followed Mondale, in turn, were expected to chair committees and lead task forces and attend cabinet meetings and generally get involved in shaping policy, to the extent that vice presidents now, in certain circumstances, might even assume the lion’s share of responsibility for running the nation.

Palin, therefore, is the innocent victim of raised expectations. In an age when any average Throttlebottom could assume the position, Palin might indeed have been regarded as over-qualified for the vice presidency. It is her bad luck, then, to be born into an era where we expect the holders of our mostly redundant federal offices to possess more than just a pretty face.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. nimh  •  Oct 14, 2008 @12:09 pm

    Innkeeper/Vice-President – nice work if you can get it.