Of presidents and vice-presidents
A contribution by FELIX M LARKIN to the “Members’ Musings” feature in the Kildare Street & University Club’s special weekly online newsletter during the COVID-19 lockdown, 29 January 2021.
Joseph Biden, now the 46th president of the United States, is one of fifteen U.S. presidents who were previously vice-presidents. He and Richard Nixon are the only two among the fifteen who did not immediately succeed the president under whom they served as vice-president, but were elected president some years later – Biden, four years later; Nixon, eight years later. Nixon had, however, sought the presidency as the outgoing vice-president in 1960, and was defeated by John F. Kennedy. Ironically, in the 1968 presidential election he defeated the then outgoing vice-president, Hubert H. Humphrey.
Outgoing vice-presidents have rarely won election to the presidency. The second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both did it – as did Martin Van Buren in 1836. The next outgoing vice-president to win a presidential election was the elder George Bush in 1988. Curiously, Van Buren and the elder Bush were both one-term presidents – losing to William Henry Harrison and Bill Clinton respectively when they sought second terms.
The other vice-presidents who succeeded to the presidency did so as a result of the death of a president – or, in the case of Gerald Ford in 1974, because of Nixon’s resignation. None who thus attained the presidency in the nineteen century were subsequently elected to the office in their own right – John Tyler (1841-45), Millard Fillmore (1850-53), Andrew Johnson (1865-69) and Chester Arthur (1881-85). Each was discarded when he had served his predecessor’s unexpired term of office.
By contrast, all the vice-presidents who assumed the presidency on the death of a president in the twentieth century were subsequently elected for one full term – Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), Calvin Coolidge (1923-29), Harry S. Truman (1945-53) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69). Ford, however, failed in his attempt to be elected president in his own right.
Theodore Roosevelt sought a second full term as president in 1912 – as a Progressive, though he had been a Republican during his presidency – but was defeated by Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge, Truman and Johnson did not seek second full terms despite being eligible to do so. The prohibition on a president serving more than two terms only had effect after Truman’s presidency. If, however, the vice-president succeeds to the presidency during the second half of his predecessor’s term, he is entitled to seek two subsequent full terms. Since Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy after the latter had served almost three years of his four-year term, he could have sought re-election in 1968 and indeed was expected to run.
Nixon and Humphrey were not the only outgoing vice-presidents to seek and fail to win the presidency. Vice-presidents Charles Pinckney and Al Gore were defeated in the presidential elections of 1808 and 2000 respectively. Two other vice-presidents ran unsuccessfully for president. Henry Wallace, vice-president from 1941 to 1945, was the Progressive candidate for president against Truman in 1948 – and attracted over one million popular votes, but none in the Electoral College. In 1988, Walter Mondale was defeated by Ronald Reagan; like Biden, he sought the presidency four years after his term as vice-president ended.
At least two presidents tried unsuccessfully to win the vice-presidency before running for president. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the defeated vice-presidential candidate in 1920, and John F. Kennedy sought but failed to secure the vice-presidential nomination of the Democratic party in 1956. The Democrats’ candidate for president in 1956 was Adlai Stevenson, and he was trounced by Eisenhower. Kennedy was lucky not to be associated with that disaster, but his performance at the nominating Convention was widely admired and it laid the foundation for his bid for the presidency in 1960.
John Tyler, the first vice-president to assume the presidency on the death of his predecessor, had the most controversial later life of any who served in both offices. After his presidency ended in 1845, he returned to his native Virginia. He supported that state’s secession from the Union in 1861 and was elected a member of the Confederate Congress. When he died in 1862, his coffin was draped in the Confederate flag. Bizarrely, one of his grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, is still living – aged 91. His father was Tyler’s son by a much younger second wife, and he is the son of his father’s second marriage – also, to a much younger woman. The three generations of the Tyler family span 230 years, President Tyler having been born in 1790.