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Vice-presidential responsibilites - 11 October 1996

A simple, short quiz, intended to enlighten and not embarrass, about men who, for a time being, were as famous as any men in this country. Add another helpful clue and say what did these men have in common? G.H. Pendleton, B. Gratz Brown, A.G. Thurman, Henry Davis, Schuyler Colfax. No? Maybe it will help if we come a little closer to our own time. Joseph T. Robinson, Charles McNary, R. Sargent Shriver, Robert J. Dole. Aha! The same man.

Twenty years ago he swam up out of obscurity, like all the others I mentioned, was a vice-presidential candidate. He, to Gerald Ford's presidential try which failed against the successful Jimmy Carter. All these men were failed vice-presidential candidates. In the simple sense that their ticket didn't win. Somebody once said that such men were the most forgotten men in America.

Nobody has cause to feel bad about a blank response to this quiz. The most learned political scholar in the United invited States is unlikely to identify these once famous names: G.H. Pendleton, B. Gratz Brown... Help! Unless he/she once made a point of memorising the whole list like those quiz whizzes who can always recite the ten highest mountains in the world or America's 50 State capitals.

It's a sobering thought, the quick rise to fame and the dashing descent into oblivion of men who might have been vice-president. If they were on the winning side they might have become president. There are already eight who belong to the fated group known as "accidental presidents," men who didn't run for president, but made it because of the death of the sitting president, either by assassination or natural causes, or once, remember, by abdication.

The yawning obscurity of these men caused an old friend of mine, an Englishman who professes little interest in government, to ask a question which I'd guess would not get a swift automatic response from most Americans: "What," he asked, "What exactly does the vice-president do?" A question which has in the past a lively range of jokes and lamentations.

One man, who made it, no less an eminence than President Woodrow Wilson was Thomas Marshall. And he had the identical question put to him by a reporter. "The vice-president," replied Mr Marshall, twirling his cigar between clauses, "is like a man in a cataleptic state. He cannot speak, he cannot move. He suffers no pain and yet he's perfectly conscious of everything that's going on about him." A wiry little man from Texas, who once became speaker of the house and twice Franklin Roosevelt's vice-president, gave a shorter, less delicate answer. "The vice presidency," he said "isn't worth a spit in a pot." I think H L Mencken spotted an essential truth about a vice-president with his jocose remark: "A vice-president is one who sits in the outer office of the president hoping to hear him sneeze".

The second article of the Constitution had this in mind with its first mention of the vice-president. "In case of the removal of the President from his office or his death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the vice-president." But that tells us what he does if he becomes president. "What exactly does he do in office?" was my friend's question. The Constitution is brief and to the point: "The vice-president of the United States shall be President of the Senate but shall have no vote unless they be equally divided".

I should tell you at once that presiding over the Senate, if a man kept to it literally, would certainly be an 18 hour a day job. In fact, in life, the vice-president appears in the top chair only on ceremonial occasions and when there is the likelihood of a 50-50 tie in a Senate vote. That's the vice-president's one significant exercise of power.

The fear of it means that the opposition has always to try and get a two vote majority in any disputed bill. And every vice-president, and I'm pretty sure every one, has had his moment of glory, in being alone able to swing a victory for the administration. There must have been some hot and heavy debates during George Washington's presidency. His vice-president, John Adams, set a record that's never even been approached. He broke a tie vote 29 times. But apart from the central truth that the vice-president is a gentleman-in-waiting, apart from his being at all times, as they say, a heartbeat away from the presidency, an intelligent and ambitious vice-president has a chance, unique in the system, of acquiring an unrivalled knowledge of how the two main branches of the government work.

He's at the president's elbow. Must know his thoughts and policies. But, also, he's in daily touch with the Congress. And while, for a couple of centuries, most vice-presidents were really kept in the outer room and left it only to represent the president at all the best state funerals, for the past 40 years, I'd say since Eisenhower and Nixon, presidents have unloaded quite a lot of responsibility and now regularly ask the vice-president to be the spokesman for the administration on a particular policy. Nixon was given enough responsibility to light the presidential fire in his belly. And after one failed try, made it, as we all know, twice.

President Bush's much derided vice-president, Dan Quayle, was the Republican Party's expert on space and missile defence policy. And in this administration, Mr Gore has been without any challenge Mr Clinton's expert on the environment. The other evening, Mr Dole's running mate, Mr Jack Kemp, made the mistake in the one and only vice-presidential debate, of lamenting the way private lands were taken from humble farmers, declared to be wetlands and subjected to heartless regulation under the government. It was a mistake to bring it up. Mr Gore can quote from now till Christmas about the rivers and ports that have been cleansed of pollution in the past four years, the bills to restrict toxic waste dumping, bills that Senator Dole voted against. The vice-president can get in an impressive sweat when he recites the administration's efforts to reign in the freewheeling habits of big business in what he calls, "the wholesale dumping of poisons".

I'm not reviewing the other night's debate between Mr Kemp and Mr Gore because people don't vote for a vice-president. And there's no evidence from the previous vice-presidential debates that they had any effect on litmus. But there was, for the first time in American history, as we like to say, there was an element, a magnetic element in this week's debate for a new reason.

A national poll has produced the astonishing information that the politicians of both parties look on Mr Jack Kemp and vice-president Al Gore as the runaway, front-runners for the presidency in 2000 AD. Well, if it's too early to say for sure who's going to win the presidential election next month, there's not much point in talking about 2000 AD. But it became clearer as Wednesday evening rolled on that both Mr Kemp and Vice-President Gore were talking more for themselves than for their leaders, as the men who mean to build a bridge into a shining new century. This note was so striking in Mr Kemp, who is a full-throated, passionate, 300 word a minute man, that afterwards a poll showed a large percentage of Republicans, of ordinary voters, wishing Mr Kemp were Mr Clinton's opponent not Mr Dole. Not a prospect, I'm sure, Mr Dole had in mind when, after much agonised meditation, he chose Jack Kemp as his running mate. The agony came from the well-known fact that Mr Dole and Mr Kemp were for years flapping at each other from opposite wings of the Republican Party.

The shining new century these two pictured for us is so close that inevitably pundits and prophets are now crowding the media. One magazine has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and couldn't resist lining up a regiment of authors and deep thinkers to predict what's in store for us. It's an awful risky business. Reading over some of the more positive prophecies, I couldn't help thinking back with gratitude and mischief to a book published, must be 15 years ago, by a couple of bright young journalists. If you too, soon become subject to prophets and pronouncements by the experts in many fields, it might be worth trying to dig up, The Experts Speak by Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf. They cover the experts through many centuries, great names, greatly listened to at the time.

Just a century ago, the President of the Royal Society, the great physicist Lord Kelvin announced in sequence that heavier than air flying machines are impossible, that radio has no future and that X-rays are a hoax. 60 years ago, a little more, Albert Einstein no less, made it plain to all of us that there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. In October 1929, the leading Yale economist announced the stock prices have reached what looks like a permanent high plateau. Two weeks later that high plateau had plunged into the pits. Only 40 years ago, the British Astronomer Royal, Arthur C. Clarke's papers not withstanding, declared space travel to be utter bilge.

Predictions on the positive side are even more painful. The world of tomorrow, as, for instance, built in miniature at the New York World's Fair of 1939, was a cleaned up version of a 1939 factory city in the country. Everybody had a garden. No row houses. No slums, of course. No visible factories. They were underground. No smoke. Beautiful radial highways. No cars on them, by the way. As for the positive pessimists, a little optimism can be picked up from the prediction of one of the deepest thinkers of them all. The great Henry Adams. In 1903. "My figures coincide in fixing 1950 as the year when the world must go to smash!"


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