John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Alan Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford. Most Americans could not tell you much about these former U.S. presidents. Some are even joke names. Mad Magazine used to throw out Millard Fillmore's name in order to make people laugh.
We know who they are. Each was a vice president who became president. Three of them -- Tyler, Fillmore, and Johnson -- are ranked among the ten worst presidents who ever held the office. Johnson is arguably the worst or second worst president in history.
John Tyler was the first vice president to become president due to the death of the president. He ran with William Henry Harrison, an aging military hero who, at sixty-eight, was the oldest man up to that time to become president. (Ronald Reagan was older when he became president). He died about a month after taking office. Tyler, a stubborn states' rights fanatic, had broken with the Democrats and was essentially a politician without a party. The Whigs chose him to run with Harrison solely because he was a southerner and was a former Democrat. John Quincy Adams called Tyler "His Accidency," because he was the first accidental president. When he finished his term neither the Whigs (his own party) nor the Democrats would nominate him to run on his own. He later became an official in the Confederate government. Thus, "His Accidency" died a traitor to the country he once led.
Fillmore was the second accidental president. His administration was a disaster. He was a three term Congressman and the comptroller of New York when the aging War hero Zachary Taylor chose him as his running mate. The second oldest president elected up to that time, Taylor died in office in 1850. Fillmore stepped in and is best known for signing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, generally considered to be one of the worst and most oppressive statutes in American history. He instituted the largest treason trial in history against a group of more than fifty blacks and whites who refused to help a U.S. marshal capture a fugitive slave. Even the proslavery Supreme Court justice who heard the case refused to extend the definition of treason to permit this prosecution. All of the defendants were set free. Fillmore could not get the Whig nomination in 1852, and four years later he ran on the Know-Nothing ticket. The Know-Nothings were anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant. It was a disgraceful party of religious bigots that thankfully disappeared after 1856.
Abraham Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson as his running mate because Johnson was the only Senator from a Confederate state who refused to leave his office and join the Confederacy. He deserved honor for refusing to fight against his country. But should he have been vice president?
The Tennessee Democrat was a fierce opponent of secession and that was enough for Lincoln when he ran for reelection in 1864. But, Johnson was also a slaveholder, a racist, and a drunkard. He was uneducated, and unlike Lincoln (who on his own had become remarkably well educated), Johnson was not well read, he was not reflective, and he acted mostly on emotion, especially anger. He opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau, black suffrage, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He refused to use the Army to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations.
His racism and opposition to black freedom and black equality ultimately led to his impeachment. After the trial a majority of the Senate voted to convict him and remove him from office, but the necessary two-thirds of the Senate did not concur. He kept his office by one vote. Like the two previous accidental presidents, he was not nominated by either party to run for a term of his own.
Arthur, Coolidge, and Ford were not the disasters of the magnitude of Tyler, Fillmore, or Johnson. But they were hardly successes. Only Coolidge was elected to a full term of his own following his completion of Harding's term. Arthur was a non-entity. Ford was an amiable bumbler, a former college all-star athlete, who is most remembered for stumbling around, hitting people with golf balls, and not knowing Poland was a Communist country.
Three accidental presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, were more successful.
Teddy Roosevelt became an icon of American power and progressive government. He came to the vice presidency with an amazing background. He had written a number of books including a highly admired Naval History of the War of 1812. He was an educated man, a war hero who had lived in a number of places and traveled widely. He had served in the New York legislature, as president of the New York Police Board (the largest city in the nation with the largest police force), on the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was Governor of New York (then the largest state in the Union) when McKinley chose him as his running mate.
Although he was an avid hunter, Roosevelt was also a naturalist and conservationist. As president he helped create national parks, broke up some monopolies, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is remembered, revered, and one of only four presidents on Mount Rushmore. Thirty men had held the office of president at the time the monument was planned.
Harry Truman defied all odds in winning on his own after replacing FDR. He got his start in Kansas City, one of the nation's larger cities. He had a long and distinguished career in Missouri and in the U.S. Senate. He was something of a maverick in Missouri. Living in a southern state he openly opposed the Ku Klux Klan. Although friends with the political boss of Kansas City, Truman was scrupulously honest and fought corruption in Missouri and later as a U.S. Senator. Only the third southerner (Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Johnson were the others) to be president since the Civil War, Truman hated segregation and ran on a strong civil rights platform. He pushed civil rights at home and integrated the military. He responded to the Korean conflict in a careful and measured way, getting international support to back U.S. efforts there.
Truman left office with horrible approval ratings, but in retrospect most observers of the presidency rate him as a near great.
Then there is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had served in national office for more than twenty years when he ran for Vice President. At the time he was the Democratic leader of the Senate. When Johnson was first offered the second spot on the ticket he called up John Nance Garner who had served two terms as VP under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Garner is quoted as telling LBJ that "the Vice Presidency is not worth a pail of warm spit." (Most historians believe that he really said it was "not worth a pail of warm piss.") Nevertheless, LBJ accepted Kennedy's offer, and in 1963 became president after Kennedy was murdered.
Riding on the sympathy of JFK's death and using a quarter century of legislative experience, Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of legislation in our history. He then won one of the most spectacular electoral victories in history, and in the next two years continued to remake civil rights, create head start, and do more for minorities, the poor, and the dispossessed than any president ever (or since Lincoln, depending how you read history). But, in the end he crashed and burned on Vietnam and left office a shattered man, hated by many in his own party. Absent Vietnam, Johnson would be ranked among our greatest presidents.
The history of vice presidents demonstrates that they do matter. Nine times in our history the vice president has stepped up into the job of the president. Two thirds of these VPs (six of nine) were either disasters or mediocrities as president. These men were party hacks (Arthur, Coolidge, Ford), virtually unknown non-entities, (Fillmore), or chosen only because they might appeal to a particular political constituency (Tyler, Andrew Johnson). None were chosen with any serious deliberative process or with much care. Some, like Tyler, Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson, were almost accidental choices for the vice presidency. Lincoln barely knew Johnson and it is not clear Taylor had ever met Fillmore.
The three VPs who were successful presidents were well read, intellectually curious, and had extensive experience prior to becoming vice president. They were well known to the nation, and the two most recent (Truman and Johnson) were carefully chosen by the man at the top of the ticket.
When Sarah Palin was first asked what the vice president did, she said she did not know. Later she said this was a lame attempt at a joke (do we believe that?) and then later said that she would expand the office beyond what the Constitution prescribes.
Even Sarah Palin, as undereducated and inexperienced as she is, should have known that the vice president sometimes does one very important thing: he (or she) steps in when the president has died (or in Nixon's case, resigned).
Should John McCain become president he will be the oldest man ever elected to the office. He has had numerous cancers above the neck. He has refused to make his medical records public and has never seriously told the American people how healthy he is. These are matters that concern the safety and security of the nation. The fitness of his vice presidential running mate to step in and run the nation also raises national security concerns.
We don't normally examine a vice presidential candidate so intently. In this case, it is imperative that we know whether John McCain's vice presidential pick is qualified to be president.
In his last debate with Senator Obama, John McCain said he was "proud" of his running mate. He did not address the question asked, whether she is ready to step in and do the demanding job of leading our nation. The American people must decide: is Sarah Palin another Harry Truman or is she another Millard Fillmore?