Presidential-Vice Presidential Relationships Aren't Always What They Seem
tags: presidential history,vice presidents
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
America has had 45 presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden, and has had 49 vice presidents from John Adams to Kamala Harris. The vast majority of these vice presidents have played an insignificant part in presidential administrations until Richard Nixon played a major role in the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Since then, the vice presidency has evolved and become a much more significant public office, after having been primarily "stand by equipment” in case of a presidential death in office.
But presidential-vice presidential relationships have not been always what they seem, as some vice presidents have suffered in public silence, and only a few have really had a major impact on the presidents they served. It is instructive to examine these relationships in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The 16 vice presidents being analyzed include: Thomas Marshall under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921); Charles Dawes under Calvin Coolidge (1925-1929); John Nance Garner under Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1941); Henry A. Wallace under Franklin D. Roosevelt (1941-1945); Richard Nixon under Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961); Lyndon B. Johnson under John F. Kennedy (1961-1963); Hubert Humphrey under Lyndon B. Johnson (1965-1969); Spiro Agnew under Richard Nixon (1969-1973); Nelson Rockefeller under Gerald Ford (1974-1977); Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter (1977-1981); George H. W. Bush under Ronald Reagan (1981-1989); Dan Quayle under George H. W. Bush (1989-1993); Al Gore under Bill Clinton (1993-2001); Dick Cheney under George W. Bush (2001-2009); Joe Biden under Barack Obama (2009-2017); and Mike Pence under Donald Trump (2017-2021). The level of disagreement and or discomfort of these 16 vice presidents varied, but all of these relationships had some difficult moments.
Thomas Marshall had a very unpleasant eight years as vice president, ignored most of the time by Woodrow Wilson as an ideological rift between the two developed during Wilson’s first term. When Wilson suffered a stroke in the fall of 1919, Marshall was kept in the dark about his condition, and First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson ran Cabinet meetings, to which Marshall was not invited. This was outrageous behavior, but reflected the reluctance of Wilson to be cooperative with his vice president.
Charles Dawes had very little contact with Calvin Coolidge. The fact that the vice president won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Dawes Plan (an economic recovery plan for Germany and its World War I debt) apparently did not impress Coolidge. Also, Dawes promoted the McNary Haugen Farm Relief plan, which Coolidge vetoed. Coolidge ignored him, Dawes did not attend Cabinet meetings, and Coolidge did not encourage any plans by Dawes to pursue the presidency or to run for vice president with Herbert Hoover in 1928.
John Nance Garner, with his background as Speaker of the House and long-term member of the House of Representatives, was put on the Democratic ticket in 1932 to balance the Northeastern nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the two men were not close. Garner, being a conservative, did not approve of most of the New Deal legislation and was openly opposed to Roosevelt’s “Court Packing” plan in 1937. Assuming that Roosevelt would retire in 1940, Garner made clear his intention to run for president, and then was alienated by Roosevelt’s third term bid and refused to stay on the ticket.
Henry A. Wallace became the most active vice president to date from 1941-1945, particularly advocating civil rights, which alienated Southern Democrats. His promotion of the idea that America could trust the Soviet Union also caused alarm, and Roosevelt steered clear of endorsement of such views. Pressured by Southern Democrats, Roosevelt agreed to replace Wallace in 1944 with Harry Truman as his running mate for a fourth term. Wallace later broke with Truman and campaigned against him on the third party Progressive Party line in 1948, criticizing of the Cold War policies of Truman.
Richard Nixon began a new tradition of an activist vice president; President Dwight D. Eisenhower allowed Nixon to take on authority during the three periods that Eisenhower had health issues in 1955, 1956, and 1957. But Eisenhower had insisted that Nixon explain the “Slush Fund” crisis that arose during the 1952 presidential campaign, and seemed ready to drop Nixon from the presidential ticket if his television appearance did not gain a good public response. The “Checkers Speech” saved Nixon’s career. Eisenhower still left open the question of taking Nixon as his running mate for a second term until Nixon asserted himself in a public statement and forced the hand of the president. And when Nixon explored presidential campaigns after his defeat in 1960, Eisenhower seemed less than enthusiastic, although he ultimately backed Nixon’s campaign in 1968.
Lyndon B. Johnson was allowed to twist in the wind by John F. Kennedy, who failed to utilize Johnson as a political or policy asset, and the open disdain from the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was made very clear. Johnson was not given any significant role in the administration, and there was some debate about whether he would be invited to be on the presidential ticket in the 1964 campaign.
Sadly, Hubert Humphrey was treated in a similar fashion by Johnson, who threatened to neutralize Humphrey if he did not come out in support of the Vietnam war policy. Humphrey, normally a cheerful, happy man, began to show evidence of the stress he was living under. This reality definitely undermined Humphrey’s own presidential campaign in 1968, and it caused Humphrey to warn his own protégé Walter Mondale to insist on a major role under Jimmy Carter as a condition of any offer to be vice president.
Spiro Agnew under Richard Nixon was encouraged to attack “liberals” and the news media, but there was also concern by Nixon about Agnew’s growing popularity with conservatives. They had never been close, and Nixon was always concerned about anyone outshining him, due to his own insecurities. There was some consideration of dropping him in 1972, but ultimately he stayed on the ticket. But when Agnew was exposed in a bribery scandal in 1973, he discovered that Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was not willing to support him. Agnew resigned in October that year. In later years, when Nixon tried to call him on the phone, Agnew refused to speak to him, indicating a total break.
Nelson Rockefeller’s service with Gerald Ford was first seen as a necessary boost for the two unelected heads of the executive branch (Ford and Rockefeller had both assumed office under the 25th Amendment due to the cascade of resignations). But while Ford wished to give Rockefeller real authority and influence, Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld negated such action. Ford was pressured by the conservative wing of his party, particularly after the two failed assassination attempts against him in California 17 days apart in September 1975, to choose a more conservative running mate after he defeated Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1976. Ford later said it was a major mistake on his part, as he believed if Rockefeller was still on the ticket, he might have defeated Jimmy Carter. Rockefeller had agreed months before the convention to renounce any interest in being part of the 1976 ticket, and found being vice president was far from rewarding personally, although Ford and Rockefeller always had good personal relations.
When Walter Mondale became vice president, he had struck a deal with Jimmy Carter that he would be in on all decisions, would have his own vice presidential office in the White House, and would attend weekly private luncheons with Carter. He became as close to a co-president as America has seen. The Mondale vice presidency became a model for the future, and the two men’s personal relationship survived the end of Carter’s presidency for the next four decades after their joint venture in the Oval Office. This is why, at Mondale’s recent passing at age 93, there was an outpouring respect and appreciation for Mondale’s contributions and historical expansion of the VP’s role.
But even Mondale and Carter did have issues that divided them, and caused Mondale to consider resigning, or not running for vice president again in the 1980 presidential election. These were Carter’s mid-1979 “Malaise Speech” and his decision to replace a number of members of his Cabinet. Both greatly upset Mondale, but this dispute was overcome, and the two men remained close friends, visiting each other regularly over the next four decades.
George H. W. Bush had a significant impact on Ronald Reagan’s presidency, due to his expertise on foreign policy, but the two men were not close friends personally. First Lady Nancy Reagan did not like Second Lady Barbara Bush, which feeling was mutual. So the Bushes were never invited to a private dinner with the Reagans at the White House during the eight years the two men served together.
Dan Quayle did not have much impact on George H. W. Bush during their four year term together, and Quayle’s constant misstatements and blunders made some wonder privately if Bush would replace Quayle in the 1992 campaign, though he did not. But to observers, the two men were clearly not close. When Bush suffered an atrial fibrillation in 1991, it caused alarm at the thought of a Quayle presidency.
Al Gore and Bill Clinton had a good relationship in the 1990s, with Gore particularly influencing Clinton on environmental issues, but it was clear to many observers that Gore had a rivalry for influence with First Lady Hillary Clinton that caused tension at times. And when Bill Clinton became enmeshed in the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals, leading to impeachment, it caused awkwardness for Gore, who consulted with former president Gerald Ford on how to conduct oneself when the president of the United States is in an impeachment crisis. Despite Clinton being acquitted in the Senate and experiencing high personal popularity, the scandal convinced Gore not to utilize the president during the 2000 campaign as much as one would have assumed. This led to a shouting match between the two in the Oval Office after Gore’s defeat by George W. Bush, and it took an extended period of time for the two men to restore their friendship.
Dick Cheney played a major role in the first term of President George W. Bush, and news media portrayed him as more influential than the president. But in his second term, Bush curbed Cheney’s power and influence, and refused to give a full pardon to Cheney’s close aide Scooter Libby. The amount of tension between the two men clearly grew over time, as many people around the president thought Cheney had become a hardliner, making him unpopular in many circles.
Joe Biden was the second most influential vice president after Walter Mondale, and had a similar agreement with Barack Obama as Mondale did with Jimmy Carter. Biden and Obama had what became known as a “Bromance”, and they have remained close. However, it was clear that Biden sometimes misspoke or stated policies not yet officially adopted, as when he spoke up for gay marriage in 2012. This caused consternation and surprised Obama, and created some stress and tensions at the time. Biden’s loose tongue seemed sometimes to make life more difficult for Obama, but overall, it was a positive relationship and experience.
Finally, Mike Pence was a sycophant under Donald Trump, enacting subservience to a president not seen since what Hubert Humphrey endured under Lyndon Johnson. When Pence did his duty and led the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021 to affirm that Joe Biden had won the Electoral College, Trump helped to incite an insurrection at the US Capitol that endangered Pence’s life along with others in the Capitol, and did not communicate with Pence for five days afterward. Trump has continued to be critical of Pence, who has tried to slough it off and move on, which has added to his image of being too loyal and unwilling to assert himself. And it is known that Second Lady Karen Pence had disdain for Trump from the 2016 campaign onward, but apparently is remaining silent as Pence considers his presidential ambitions for 2024.
And now, we have Kamala Harris, who seems to be in a close relationship with Joe Biden, similar to Biden with Obama, and Mondale with Carter, but time will show if such a tight relationship will endure.
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