By Kaleena Fraga
Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.”
When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist:
“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).
Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles.
When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988.
Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.
Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes.
That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that?