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?
In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.
Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.
No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.
Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.
Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.
Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.
“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.
Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”
In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.
From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.
The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?
The 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws”, effectively ending the 3/5 Compromise enshrined in the Constitution (stating that states could count black people as 3/5 of a person). As president, Andrew Johnson fought against the 14th amendment and convinced southern states to do the same. Following his lead, southern states refused to ratify it. Still, the amendment was ratified on July 9th, 1868. It was followed by the 15th amendment, which ensured equal voting rights, regardless of race.
This was, Grant said during his presidency, a mistake.
Grant was no racist–far from it–but he recognized the inherent problem of states disenfranchising voters, while using their bodies as tallies toward their power in the electoral college.
What was it about the 14th and 15th amendments that Grant didn’t like?
Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, recorded Grant’s thoughts during a particularly tense point in his presidency. The recent presidential election–which would eventually put Rutherford B. Hayes in office–had been highly contested, and Grant and Fish had heard reports from Louisiana that stated that black voters had been so terrorized that “overwhelmingly Republican parishes had ended up in Democratic columns.” A Senate investigation even later uncovered that in one parish 60 black Republicans had been murdered before the election.
Fish wrote of Grant, “He says he is opposed to the XV amendment and thinks it was a mistake; that it had done the negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.”
Grant later clarified what he meant: “[The South] keep[s] those votes, but disfranchise[s] the negroes,” he told journalist John Russell Young. “That is one of the gravest mistakes of reconstruction.” In other words, the 14th amendment increased the population of the South, which gave southern states more heft in the electoral college. So although the South suppressed the black vote, it could count them fully for election purposes. The result was an imbalance of power.
Grant saw it as his prime responsibility–indeed, the prime responsibility of the government–to ensure that everyone had safe, easy access to voting. “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vested in the Executive,” he said, “for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”
Grant oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, schools, transportation, and juries. Democratic states did not bother to enforce it, and it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional. It would take almost 100 years for Congress to attempt anything similar.
It wasn’t until 1957 that Congress passed another civil rights bill; and it wasn’t until 1964 that laws first proposed in 1875 were enshrined into law. Then, in 1965 the country saw the Voting Rights Act, which enabled fair voting to the very citizens that Grant sought to protect, 90 years earlier.
Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency was a long time ago, but his mission, to protect voters, is today more important than ever.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key tenets of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, stated that such protections were no longer needed because “our country has changed” for the better. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Roberts wrote, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions.”
Since 2013, it’s become harder for Americans to vote. In light of the 2013 ruling, southern states have closed at least 868 polling places–the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the Department of Justice to stop closures like these, but that part of the legislation was struck down. Voxpoints out that these 868 closures are in about half of the counties that were once targeted by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of racial discrimination. This means that there could be hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of closures that are untracked.
In 2018, the United States faces the same problem it faced in the 1860s and 1870s. Americans have a limited ability to vote. Those who work long hours, or shifts, or live far away from polling places, face difficulties having their voices heard. Yet they are still counted, and states can use their bodies (even while it silences their voices) on the electoral stage. To Grant, this oversight on the part of the U.S. government would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.
Talk of impeaching Andrew Johnson began even before his ill-fated presidency.
When Johnson was first sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in 1865, he rewarded onlookers to a drunken tirade about his “Plebeian roots” and how he had triumphed over the ruling elite. Senators in attendance covered their faces with embarrassment–Lincoln’s former vice president, Hannibal Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails in a vain attempt to get him to sit down, while the president looked on with an expression of “unutterable sorrow.” A group of Radical Republicans promptly drafted a resolution demanding that Johnson resign, or be impeached.
Johnson survived the demand. Lincoln came to his defense, saying, “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”
A little over a month later, Lincoln was dead–the first president to be assassinated–launching Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, into the presidency just as the Civil War drew to a close.
Although Republicans in Congress had had high hopes for Johnson–after all, he remained loyal to the Union, even though he hailed from Tennessee–they quickly found that he did not intend to reform the South, but rather sought to reinforce old power structures. Johnson got to work choosing conservatives as state governors and issuing pardons to white southerners. He was lenient toward the Southern ruling class, and dismissive and hateful toward newly freed black Americans. “This is a country for white men,” he once declared, “and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Before long, the relationship between the new president and Congress became contentious.
As racial violence flared in the South, the Republican Congress, increasingly distrustful of Johnson’s willingness to interfere, passed the Tenure of Office Act. The act was meant to protect members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, whom Johnson had retained when he took over the presidency. The law prohibited the president from removing any officials that had been confirmed by the Senate, without the Senate’s approval. It especially sought to protect the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who had close ties to Radical Republicans in Congress.
When Johnson tried to remove Stanton, Congress responded with articles of impeachment. Nine of the eleven articles related to the Tenure of Office Act–others related to Johnson’s “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States…to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress…and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress.”
Ultimately the Tenure of Office Act was unclear enough-after all, Stanton had been appointed and confirmed under Lincoln-that Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote.
What does Andrew Johnson have to do with Donald Trump? Aside from sharing several characteristics, recent actions by Congress could put Trump in the same position as Johnson, when Johnson faced impeachment charges.
In the wake of Trump’s decision to revoke security credentials from the former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Mark Warner has announced his intention of introducing a bill that would bar the president from “arbitrarily revoking security clearances.” The amendment is unlikely to pass–at least as long as Republicans control Congress. Yet, if midterms bring a political shift to Washington D.C. it’s not implausible that such legislation would be revisited.
If that were the case, and if Trump continued to use the revocation of security clearances as a way to punish his critics, he would find himself in the same position as Andrew Johnson–breaking a law set by Congress meant to control him (not to mention Trump has the whole insulting Congress thing in the bag).
For now, at least, it’s a lot of ifs. Still, if Trump finds himself facing a hostile Congress, as Johnson did, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he would face a similar outcome.
In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.
Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.
Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.
Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”
Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.
When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.
Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”
Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.
Harry S Truman
When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.
Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.
In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:
“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”
When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”
That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.
The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:
“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”
George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.” By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.
So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.
The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”
Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.
“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”
Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post.
(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)
Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”
When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.
On February 5th, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he would attempt to expand the Supreme Court bench. His announcement incited instant outrage–Roosevelt’s opponents accused him of trying to pack the court so that he could push through his New Deal policies. Roosevelt’s plan was radical—he sought to completely reshape the court—but the idea of changing the number of justices is not, and indeed, Congress has adjusted the size of the Supreme Court six times in American history.
Originally, the Judiciary Act of 1789 ruled that there would be six justices. But when Thomas Jefferson swept to power in a Democratic wave that also put his party in Congress, the lame-duck Federalist Congress voted to reduce the number of justices to five. When the next Congress was sworn in, they repealed this decision, keeping the court at six justices. In Jefferson’s second term, they added a seventh, affording Jefferson the opportunity to appoint someone to the bench.
Thirty years later the size of the court changed again. Congress increased the court to nine justices, which gave Andrew Jackson the opportunity to hand-pick the two additions to the Supreme Court.
Change came again in the 1860s. This was a a turbulent time for the nation, and the Supreme Court. In the midst of the Civil War the court expanded yet again to an all-time high of ten justices–this time to protect an anti-slavery/pro-Union majority. But when Andrew Johnson became president following Lincoln’s assassination, the Republican Congress reduced the size of the court to protect it from a Democratic president. The court shrank from ten justices to seven. Congress effectively removed Johnson’s ability to appoint any justices. Then when Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1868 after Johnson left office, Congress voted to expand the courtto nine justices. For many people in 1937 when Roosevelt made his pronouncement, nine justices felt like a norm—like an unchangeable fact of the judicial system.
Roosevelt’s plan, however, was not as simple as expanding the court. He wanted to enforce rules to make justices retire at 70, and, if they refused, give himself the power to appoint associate justices who could vote in their stead. This would effectively give him the power to sculpt the court, and to ensure the legality of his New Deal legislation.
FDR had had a productive first term, and had won reelection by a stunning margin. (He had won the largest popular vote margin in American history, and the best electoral vote margin since James Monroe ran unopposed). But the justices on the Supreme Court had publicly expressed opposition to Roosevelt’s policies. Because six of the nine were over 70, Roosevelt’s plan would boot them off the bench. His argument was that they had grown too old to do their work, and that they had fallen behind. A lifetime term, Roosevelt said, “was not intended to create a static judiciary. A constant and systematic addition of younger blood will vitalize the courts.”
But Roosevelt’s statement that the Court was behind on its work wasn’t true. His plan was met with roaring opposition as letters poured in from around the country. Even his vice president, John Nance Gardner, expressed displeasure as the plan was read aloud in Congress, holding his nose and making a thumbs-down gesture. In the Senate, Roosevelt could only gather 20 votes for his plan.
Roosevelt wasn’t able to make any changes to the Supreme Court. Yet, perhaps because of his maneuvering, he convinced one justice, Owen Roberts, to switch his vote to support many New Deal policies.
Given the outrage at the time of Roosevelt’s proposal, and it’s ultimate failure, it’s no wonder that the idea of changing the composition of the court is often met with distrust and derision. But there is nothing in the Constitution that says the Supreme Court has to stay at nine justices, and, indeed, it has fluctuated between six and ten throughout American history. Perhaps Roosevelt could have succeeded if he had merely attempted to expand the Court as Congress did under Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant.
Today, with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote, the idea of changing the composition of the court has begun to gain traction among Democrats. As many liberals look down the barrel of thirty or forty years of conservative Supreme Court decisions, expanding the court to allow the appointment of more liberal justices could be the remedy they are seeking.
“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together.
“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”
These were the last words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of jubilant supporters after he won the California primary during his run for president in 1968. He and his team disappeared into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles–minutes later, Kennedy was shot.
President Johnson, no fan of Bobby Kennedy, spoke to the nation following Kennedy’s death. Johnson said that Kennedy, “affirmed this country–affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all…Our public life is diminished by his loss.”
Today history is rife with what-if questions surrounding Bobby Kennedy. What if he had lived, and became president instead of Richard Nixon in 1968? Friends and family of Kennedy have recently thrown the resolution of his assassination into doubt. Although perhaps not as widely disputed as his brother Jack’s death, Bobby Kennedy’s son and his close friend and campaign aide, Paul Schrade, have both pointed to flaws in the case.
Kennedy’s assassination marked another bloody event in a year that had already seen student protests, climbing casualties in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to the American people, Johnson noted: “in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the lives of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to contain it to minor outbursts.”