Vice presidents don’t matter? Think again. More than 30 percent have gone on to hold the higher office.
Despite Vice President John Nance Garner’s notorious description that the vice-presidency as not worth a pitcher of warm spit,” the fact is that the office, and who holds it, matter enormously.
That was true in Garner’s time and even more so today. Nine vice-presidents before him had advanced to the presidency, six by succeeding a deceased president.
Five more men have been added to that list since Garner’s day, three because of the death or resignation of the elected president.
And recent vice-presidents have been granted considerably greater responsibilities than their predecessors while holding the No. 2 office. Consider, for example, Lyndon B. Johnson and the space program; Al Gore and environmental policy, or Dick Cheney and national security.
Warm spit indeed.
What follows is a capsule account of the 46 vice presidents.
Total number of presidential terms since 1789: 55
Number of persons who have served as president: 43 (Grover Cleveland is usually counted twice — as both the 22nd and 24th president — so the actual number is 42)
Presidents who died of natural causes in office: 4 (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt)
their average age at death: 63
average length of elected term before death: 12 months
their average age at death: 52
average length of elected term before death: 12 months
*President who resigned: 1 (Richard M. Nixon)
age at leaving office: 61
length of elected term served before resignation: 20 months
*Political party of presidents who died in office or resigned: Whigs: 2; Democrats: 2; Republicans: 5
*Average age on leaving office of all presidents who died or resigned: 58
*Average length of elected term served before death or departure: 13 months
*Percentage of elected terms interrupted by death from natural causes: 7.3 percent (4/55)
*Percentage of elected terms interrupted by assassination: 7.3 percent (4/55)
*Percentage of all presidential terms served in part by vice presidents: 16.4 percent (9/55)
*Number of persons who have served as vice president: 46
*Number of vice presidents who became president: 14 (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, George H.W. Bush)
*Percentage of vice presidents who became president: 30.4 percent (14/46)
*Average length of term served by vice president who assumed office on death or departure of the president: 35 months
*Number of vice presidents who completed the term of a departed president and were later nominated in their own right for the presidency: 5 (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford)
*Number of vice presidents who completed the term of a departed president and were later nominated for the presidency and won: 4 (all but Gerald Ford)
*Number of vice presidents who completed the term of a departed president and were not nominated by their party for a full presidential term: 4 (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur)
*Number of vice presidents who assumed the presidency on death or resignation of the president, and their highest office achieved prior to vice presidency: 9
o John Tyler: U.S. senator and governor of Virginia
o Millard Fillmore: congressman (chairman of Committee on Ways and Means)
o Andrew Johnson: U.S. senator and governor of Tennessee
o Chester Arthur: Collector of New York customhouse
o Theodore Roosevelt: governor of New York
o Calvin Coolidge: governor of Massachusetts
o Harry Truman: U.S. senator
o Lyndon Johnson: U.S. senator (Senate Majority Leader)
o Gerald Ford: congressman (House Minority Leader)
*Percentage of terms of persons elected originally to the presidency not served by those so elected: 17.6 percent (9/51)
*Percentage of vice presidents who became president due to departure of originally elected president: 19.6 percent (9/46)
David M. Kennedy is Donald J. McLachlan professor of history at Stanford University. His book, “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” won the Pulitzer Prize for history. Sarah Anzia is a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford.
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