Historians Weigh Role of Vice-Presidential Candidates

GWEN IFILL: It is the Fourth of July, and the political world is taking a breath. But behind the scenes, each candidate is hard at work on the most important decision he may make this year: the choice of a running mate.

But how important is a vice president? Originally, the candidate who came in second simply got the job, but now Vice President Cheney is arguably the most powerful No. 2 ever.

The road from there to here provides fodder this Independence Day for our panel of historians, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

Everyone is involved, Richard Norton Smith, in the veepstakes, deciding who the next vice president is going to be. Was this always such an important job?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: No. The fact is that, for most of our history — for example, the Constitution only provides two functions for a vice president. One is to preside over the Senate, and the other is to be ready to succeed to a president if called upon.

Really, beginning in the 1950s, the advent of the jet plane and television, and the fact that Dwight Eisenhower was the oldest president up until that time, willing to entrust a lot of functions to Richard Nixon, who, because of the Checkers speech in the '52 campaign and television, came into office, unlike other vice presidents, with a constituency of his own.

So it really began in the 1950s to become not quite a deputy president, but certainly not the inconsequential office that John Adams had portrayed it as.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk a little bit about that, Peniel Joseph. What was the original envisioning of what this office was supposed to be?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, originally, in terms of the framers, the vice presidency comes into play with the person who actually is second for president. So when we think about the way in which the framers originally conveyed it, John Adams actually runs for president, and so does George Washington. He comes in second.

By the time Thomas Jefferson runs for president, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson are tied, and there's really a constitutional crisis. And the Twelfth Amendment is going to be put into place to make sure that there are separate ballots for president and vice president.

GWEN IFILL: So it really didn't matter that much who was vice president those first couple of terms, or did it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Not a lot. But, you know, Thomas Jefferson was vice president under John Adams after 1797. They disagreed on almost every issue, and Jefferson was so angry that he decamped Philadelphia, where the capitol was, and went back to his house at Monticello, Va., for most of that term.

So you could say, yes, it didn't matter much, because, you know, people didn't say that the republic grinds to a halt because the vice president is not here, but it highlighted the problem that you have if you've got a vice president who disagrees a lot with the guy who's president.

GWEN IFILL: And after all, he was still a heartbeat away, whether he was powerful in that role or not.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.

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