If she didn’t already know, Vice President Kamala Harris is probably finding out this week what kind of dubious job it is to be Number Two. You have to believe most, if not all, of the previous 48 people to hold that office, didn’t find a lot of good things to say about it. Even the framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t think much of it, only giving the VP a single official duty. As it says in Article 1, Section 3, “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.”
Of course, with today’s Senate split 50-50, Ms. Harris’ sole duty becomes more important. But it’s still not much of a reason to aspire to the office. Especially since only 272 tie-breaking votes have been cast since 1789. Now, granted, given the current contentious division in the country as a whole, that number may increase exponentially this year and next, but 272 times to exercise that power over the course of 232 years isn’t exactly taxing work.
Vice presidents normally don’t get much opportunity to speak their own minds in public. They might have the President’s ear in private meetings, but whatever decision the President makes is what the Veep has to go along with. Agree or disagree, if the Boss says the sky is green, then by golly, so be it.
You know, originally the vice president was simply the person who got the second most votes in a presidential election. But then in 1796, President John Adams (the leading vote-getter) and Vice President Thomas Jefferson (second place) were from opposing political parties, and shortly thereafter (1804) the 12th Amendment was ratified to keep that recipe for chaos from happening again.
Only a dedicated student of U.S. history would know about people such as Daniel Tompkins, Richard Johnson, George Dallas, William King, Schuyler Colfax, Levi Morton, Garrett Hobart, and Charles Curtis. But all, at one time or another, were a mere heartbeat away from the presidency. Much like the British Royal family members, the vice president acts as a spare heir. And since out of 46 presidents a sitting one has died or been removed from office nine times, there’s a real chance of the veep assuming the mantle.
I don’t know if Richard Nixon was the most picked-upon vice president in history, but he may well have been. In the 1950s, everybody, it seemed, liked Ike. The opposing political party and the press quickly found out that Dwight Eisenhower was someone hard to criticize without backlash. He had, after all, been the Supreme Commander of the troops in Europe during World War II, and it’s probably fair to say most of the returning GIs revered him. So, taking a potshot at President Eisenhower wasn’t advisable. His VP was a much easier target.
Jack Kennedy pretty much told Lyndon Johnson to go count tumbleweeds at his Texas ranch. LBJ did manage to get NASA’s Mission Control built in Houston, but he spent a lot of time twiddling his thumbs. And then Johnson treated his own Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, even worse. The great satirist, Tom Lehrer, even wrote a song whose lyrics posited, “Whatever became of you, Hubert?” One of his best lines in the number was, “Second fiddle’s a hard part I know, when they don’t even give you a bow.”
More recently, vice presidents have had a bigger impact on administration decisions, and often have found themselves out on the hustings pitching the president’s policies. And that can be difficult, especially when there might be a disagreement or two. They can’t really be saying things such as, “Well, the President thinks we ought to do such-and-such. But I think it’s a load of hogwash.” In all likelihood, vice presidents should all be nominated for Best Supporting Role Oscars. You know they’ve all had to do one heck of an acting job at some point along the way.
It’s possible Kamala Harris may be putting on a good show now. As a Senator, she made a few statements that indicated she isn’t much of a fan of sending back illegal immigrants at the southern border simply because they are undocumented. And now she’s been in the Northern Triangle basically telling those considering a hike through Mexico to Texas, Arizona, and California, “Don’t come. You will be turned back.”
One of FDR’s second bananas, John Nance Garner, famously suggested the Office of Vice President was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” (Or something close to that.) After four months or so on the job, how do you suppose Kamala Harris would categorize it?
©MMXXI. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer