Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

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? 

Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.