Vice President Walter Mondale (1977-81) has died at the age of 93. Half of the longest-lived President-and-Vice President team, he had served as the Attorney General of Minnesota, and was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s successor in the Senate for 12 years before Jimmy Carter chose him to run for the Vice Presidency. After their one term in the White House, Mondale served for three years as the US Ambassador to Japan under President Clinton.
Before his death, Mondale wrote a good-bye letter to his staff (available here).
Mondale is #5 on the list of longest-lived Vice Presidents, and #1 on the list of longest-retired Vice Presidents (as his President, Jimmy Carter, is on the list of Presidents). He was the first major party Presidential candidate to choose a female running mate, when he put New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket in 1984 (though they lost to Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election). He also stepped in to run for Senator in Minnesota in 2002, when the party’s nominee, incumbent Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash two weeks before election day.
It’s a shame that it took the horrors of yesterday to wake so many of our leaders to the need to invoke the fourth clause of the 25th Amendment. I called for it last summer, but my voice is not so loud. Today, however, the 25th is everywhere, so here’s a brief discussion of what it is, where it came from, and what it can do and has done.
Up until 1967, the Constitution provided a means of filling a vacancy in the presidency—the vice president would succeed to the office—but no way to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency. If the vice president died in office, or succeeded to the presidency, there would be no vice president until the next election chose one and he was inaugurated the following March (the date of inauguration was changed to January by the 20th Amendment, starting in 1937).
But in the 1960s, after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in office in 1945, and John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, there was enough public will to find a way to fill that role. This was especially true after Kennedy’s death, because the next two in line—the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate—were both considered to be less than completely healthy.
The 25th Amendment was written to enable a vice presidential vacancy to be filled (that’s the second section: “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”).
At the same time, there was recognition of the fact that a president might not be dead, but still unable to execute the duties of his office. This was brought to light when Dwight Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack that put him out of commission for a while. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon had an agreement that Nixon would take over if necessary, but that agreement wasn’t enshrined in law.
And we’re pretty sure now that earlier, in 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke left him completely unable to do the job. But nothing was done, except that his wife was most probably the acting president for about six months.
Thus, the third section was written, enabling the President to say “Hey, I’m having trouble doing the job. I’m going to step aside temporarily and let the Vice President act in my stead.”
The fourth section is the other side of that coin: if the President is unable to make that determination (for instance, if he’s in a coma), the Vice President—acting in concert with a majority of the Cabinet—can say “The President is unable to do the job. For the good of the country, the Vice President will serve as acting President until the President is once again able.”
The third section has been invoked several times in recent decades, but not in any terribly dramatic fashion:
On July 12, 1985, President Ronald Reagan underwent a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He elected to have the lesion removed immediately. On July 13, Reagan signed a letter before going under general anesthesia, and Vice President George H.W. Bush was acting president from 11:28 a.m. until 7:22 p.m., when Reagan transmitted a followup letter declaring himself able to resume his duties.
On June 29, 2002, President George W. Bush invoked Section 3 and temporarily transferred his powers to Vice President Dick Cheney before undergoing a colonoscopy, which began at 7:09 a.m. Bush awoke about forty minutes later but did not resume his presidential powers until 9:24 a.m., to ensure any aftereffects had cleared.
On July 21, 2007, Bush again invoked Section 3 before another colonoscopy. Cheney was acting president from 7:16 a.m. to 9:21 a.m.
In all three cases, the acting President didn’t do anything other than carry out his usual duties.
Perhaps the clearest instance when section 4 should have been invoked was on March 30, 1981, when Reagan was shot and rushed into emergency surgery without time to sign a letter under section 3. Vice President Bush did not assume the presidential powers and duties as acting president because he was rushed back to Washington via airplane, and Reagan was out of surgery by the time Bush landed in Washington.
Sections 3 and 4 get far more play in fiction. They were notable in a two-episode arc of The West Wing, and as a poorly executed subplot in the movie Air Force One.
By the way, there’s also the first section of the Amendment, which clarifies something that had been less-than-clear
Clause Six of Article II of the Constitution says that if the President dies or is unable “to discharge the powers and duties” of the presidency, “the same shall devolve on the Vice President.” That left open the question of whether a succeeding Vice President became the President, or was merely acting as President. John Tyler, the first Vice President to be faced with that situation, insisted that he was the President, and through force of will, made that determination stick. But still, it wasn’t entirely clear until the 25th Amendment was adopted. The first section reads “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
Section 3: Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4: Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
The 25th Amendment was adopted by the 89th Congress in 1965, submitted to the states on July 6 of that year, and was adopted (ratified by 38 states) on February 10, 1967. To date, it has been ratified by 47 states (all but Georgia, North Dakota, and South Carolina).
On Saturday (November 7), I made mention of a pundit’s misstatement about one of the “firsts” that Kamala Harris will bring to the vice presidency. One of my friends on Facebook recommended writing an op-ed for the New York Times.
I’ve all but given up submitting pieces to newspapers because, if they’re timely, I have to figure out which paper is likely to say yes on the first attempt, because I won’t get a chance to submit it elsewhere, or by the time I don’t submit it, it will be incredibly dated. And if they’re not time sensitive (personal failing here), I tend to lose interest in submitting them after two or three newspapers fail to respond (and no newspapers respond negatively; they all say “if you don’t hear from us in [some amount of time], that means we don’t want it”). So I’ve taken to publishing my essays on my own blog, and hoping to eventually see some remuneration from sympathetic readers (it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m eternally hopeful).
At any rate, I wrote this piece Sunday, November 8, and submitted it to the Times with this cover note:
My first appearance in the Times was a letter to the editor commenting on the coverage of the 1984 election. I knew it appeared only after reading the letter in the paper, realizing it agreed with my views, and then seeing that the byline was, indeed, my name. After that, I earned my degree in political science from Boston University, went on to a career as a writer and editor, and am the author of three books on presidential history and trivia.
On Tuesday, they published a similar article by a staffer, making me grumble good-naturedly: obviously, the piece I wrote was a good idea, it was something they were interested in publishing, it’s just that my timing was off (though admittedly, I wrote it the same day everyone was thinking the same thing). So I’m publishing it here for your delectation.
Not all the “first”s are Kamala Harris’s
Kamala Harris will be the first woman to be vice president, the first of Jamaican/African heritage, the first Asian-American, the first to use a different last name than her spouse, and several other firsts. But there’s one thing I’ve heard far too many times from pundits and commentators in the last few days, one first that is not hers: She will not be the first person of color to be vice president, or the first of other-than-European descent.
Charles Curtis was vice president from 1929 to 1933. Prior to that, he served more than three terms in the Senate (resigning in the middle of his fourth to become vice president), and before that, seven terms in the House of Representatives, representing Kansas. During his time in the Senate, he served as president pro tempore and as majority leader, and he co-authored an early attempt at the Equal Rights Amendment.
Prior to his political career, Curtis was a lawyer in Kansas, and prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas, from 1885 to 1889. And after retiring from the vice presidency (he and President Herbert Hoover were landslided out of office in the election of 1932), Curtis resumed his law practice in Washington, DC.
Curtis is the last vice president to have been born in a territory: he was born in Topeka, Kansas Territory, on January 25, 1860. Kansas became the 34th state a year later.
Curtis was a member of the Kaw Nation. His mother, Ellen Papin, was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French. His father, Orren Curtis, was English, Scots, and Welsh. Through his mother, Curtis was a descendant of chief White Plume of the Kaw Nation and chief Pawhuska of the Osage. His mother died when he was 3, and his father fought in the Civil War. Curtis was raised by his grandparents: his maternal grandparents on the reservation, and his paternal grandparents in Topeka.
Curtis and his wife, Annie Elizabeth Baird, had three children. She died in 1924. Curtis is the last vice president to have been unmarried during his entire time in office. His sister, Dolly, acted as his official hostess for social events. When he took office as vice president, Curtis was 69 years old: the oldest person to become vice president (though that record was exceeded by 71-year-old Alben Barkley in 1949).
Vice presidents at the time did not enjoy the partnership with their presidents that has marked the last several administrations, and the formerly active senator bristled at the inactivity of the office. So, trying to make the best of it, he enjoyed the status of the vice presidency, and made a big deal out of his rise “from Kaw tepee to Capitol.” He decorated his office with Native American artifacts and posed for pictures wearing Indian headdresses.
Charles Curtis died a heart attack on February 8, 1936, at the age of 76. He was buried next to his wife at the Topeka Cemetery in Kansas. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine on December 20, 1926, and June 18, 1928, while serving in the Senate, and on December 5, 1932, as Vice President.
By the way, Harris is also not going to be the first vice president to have had a long-term relationship with a man. But the story of Vice President King will have to wait for another time.
Several places (including, for example, https://digg.com/2018/two-letter-initials-how-common), note that among people’s names in the United States, the most common first initials are C, D, J, M, and R. The most common initials of last names are B, M, S and W. And the most-likely two letter combination is JB. At the other end of that spectrum, least common initials (for both first and last names) are Q, X, Y, and Z.
This got me thinking about the 44 people who have been president, and the 48 who have been vice president. Among both presidents and vice presidents, the most common first initial is J. There have been ten presidents and six vice presidents whose names started with J. Among the presidents, there were six James (Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter) and four Johns (both Adams, Tyler, and Kennedy). Well, actually five Johns, but John Calvin Coolidge used his middle name. Among the vice presidents, there were five Johns (Adams, Calhoun, Tyler, Breckinridge, and Garner) and one James (Sherman). Coolidge was also a vice president, giving us another unused John, and Vice President Dan Quayle’s full name is James Danforth Quayle.
Among presidents, the next most common first initials are W and G (six and five, respectively). But from that list of common initials? C, D, M, and R: two, two, two, and three presidents. For vice presidents, five each used the first initials A, C, G, and H. There were one D, three Ms, and three Rs.
It’s when we get to last names that we see a significant diversion from the population at large (remember, most common are B, M, S, and W). The most common last initials among presidents are both H and T (five of each). There have been three Bs, three Ms, and two Ws, but absolutely no presidents whose last names start with S. Among vice presidents, C and B are the most popular (six C and five B), with three Ms, two Ss, and three Ws.
To date, we have had no presidents whose last names started with D, I, Q, S, U, X, Y, or Z. And their absent first initials are: E, I, K, N, O, P, Q, S, V, X, and Y. So it’s definitely time for a President Ian Strock, right?
Among vice presidents, none have had last names starting with E, I, L, O, U, X, Y, or Z. Absent vice presidential first initials: B, F, I, K, O, P, Q, U, V, X, Y, or Z.
Unique first initials: Elbridge (Gerry), Nelson (Rockefeller), Ulysses (Grant, though his birth name was Hiram), and Zachary (Taylor).
Unique last initials: (Dwight) Eisenhower, (Abraham) Lincoln, (Dan) Quayle, and (Barack) Obama. And sort of (Richard) Nixon and (Martin) Van Buren, since they’re each the only one with their last initial, but they appear on both the presidents and vice presidents lists.
With so many people sharing so few initials, it ought to have been common for presidents and vice presidents to share initials, right? Wrong. The only time our president and vice president shared initials was when James Buchanan and John C. Breckinridge were in office (1857-61).
Another feature that caught my eye were alliterative initials. In fiction, they’re common: Bilbo Baggins, Betty Boop, the Bunnys (Babs, Bugs, and Buster), Cliff Clavin, the Duck (Daffy, Daisy, and Donald), Fred Flintstone, Henry Higgins, Humbert Humbert, King Kong, Lana Lang and Lois Lane, the Mouses (Mickey, Mighty, and Minnie), Olive Oyl, the Pink Panther, the Pigs (Petunia and Porky), Roger Rabbit, Tiny Tim, Willie Wonka, many characters who live in the Marvel Universe*, half the supporting cast of the Harry Potter series**… and it’s not unnoticed in the realm of presidents or vice presidents, either. We’ve had presidents Woodrow Wilson (1913-21, though his unused first name was actually Thomas), Calvin Coolidge (1923-29, see above, John), Herbert Hoover (1929-33), and Ronald Reagan (1981-89). Vice Presidents: Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65), William Wheeler (1877-81), Calvin Coolidge (1921-23, again, John), Charles Curtis (1929-33), and Hubert Humphrey (1965-69).
And then there were those who were sequentially named. We had presidents James Madison (1809-17) and James Monroe (1817-25). And vice presidents Calvin Coolidge (1921-23), Charles Dawes (1925-29), and Charles Curtis (1929-33).
As for the current election, Donald Trump is the second president named with a D (after Dwight Eisenhower), and Mike Pence is the first vice president with a P on his last name. Joe Biden (already on the vice presidents’ list) would be the eleventh J president, and Kamala Harris would be the first K vice president.
* : In The Big Bang Theory episode “The Excelsior Acquisition” (season 3, episode 16), Raj lists Stan Lee’s alliterative character names, including: Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Steven Strange, Otto Octavius, Silver Surfer, Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson Junior, Dum Dum Dugan, Green Goblin, Matt Murdock, Pepper Potts, Victor Von Doom, Millie the Model, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Invincible Iron Man, Happy Hogan, Curt Connors, and Fin Fang Foom. (See https://bigbangtheory.fandom.com/wiki/The_Excelsior_Acquisition)
** : First appearing in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Bathilda Bagshot, Bertie Bott, Daedalus Diggle, Dudley Dursley, Filius Flitwick, Gregory Goyle, Gellert Grindelwald, Morag MacDougal, Minerva McGonagall, Marlene McKinnon, Pansy Parkinson, Padma Patil, Parvati Patil, Piers Polkiss, Poppy Pomfrey, Quirinus Quirrell, Severus Snape, Vindictus Viridian, and William “Bill” Weasley.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Colin Creevey, Godric Gryffindor, Gladys Gudgeon, Helga Hufflepuff, Martin Miggs, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Cho Chang, Florean Fortescue, Peter Pettigrew, and Stan Shunpike.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Broderick Bode and Joey Jenkins.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Dilys Derwent, Inigo Imago, Luna Lovegood, and Willy Widdershins.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Arkie Alderton, Betty Braithwaite, Mary MacDonald, Ted Tonks, and Wendell Wilkins.
For those who are asking: yes, I did watch the vice presidential debate last night.
I thought both candidates did what they needed to do: look competent, show that they agree with and follow the lead of their presidential candidate, and not do anything too egregiously stupid. They were both there to re-assure those who have already decided which way they’re voting that that decision was the correct one.
Both candidates, it seems, let pass several opportunities to attack the other. Again, I think that’s because they weren’t there to look terribly combative (well, more combative than they have been on the campaign trail). That wasn’t the goal of the debate.
I don’t think either candidate swayed any votes, but that doesn’t really matter, and wasn’t their goal. Glancing at several post-debate analyses, it seems one thing they all had in common was a difficult time finding enough undecided voters to put together a meaningful panel.
Actually, the most surprising part of the debate, to me, is the universal agreement that “my” candidate did great, totally won the debate, and wiped the floor with the other. I haven’t seen/heard anyone say anything positive about the other candidate, or anything negative about their own. So, like our reliance on social media for news for the past decade, we continue to live in echo chambers in which differing points of view, if they’re noticed at all, are immediately dismissed as “fringe”.
On Tuesday, September 29, the two oldest people ever are going to square off in a debate as candidates for President of the United States of American.
Before Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan was the only person to pass his 70th birthday before being inaugurated as president, and at that, it was Reagan’s re-election (he first took office 17 days before his 70th birthday, in 1981). But now, we’re looking at an election in which whoever wins (ignoring the chance of a third-party candidate winning),
we’ll be inaugurating the oldest person ever to take the oath of office. On Inauguration Day 2021, Donald Trump will be 74 years 220 days old. That same day, Joe Biden will be 78 years 61 days old. And yes, Reagan is—at the moment—still the oldest president ever, having retired at the age of 77 years 348 days.
And the combined ages of the major party candidates so far outstrips any other election that it’s truly remarkable. Before 2020, the oldest combined ages of a two-candidate race was… well, in 2016, when 70-year-old Donald Trump defeated 69-year-old Hillary Clinton. But before that, we have to go back to 1984, when 73-year-old Reagan defeated 57-year-old Walter Mondale, and 1848, when 64-year-old Zachary Taylor (who died in office) defeated 66-year-old Lewis Cass.
In fact, the only candidates who’ve run for the presidency in their seventies were Trump, Reagan, Bob Dole (who lost the election of 1996 at the age of 73), and John McCain (who lost the election of 2008 at the age of 72). That’s it. Out of 57 elections, more than 75 major party candidates, and only four (now five) candidates more than 70 years old.
At the other end of the scale, everyone remembers that John Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected (he took office at the age of 43 in 1960), and all you trivia mavens also remember to correct that record, because Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency at the age of 42, upon William McKinley’s death in 1901.
But how many of you remember that the youngest major party candidate was actually 36 years old? Had William Jennings Bryan won the election of 1896 (the first of three in which he was the Democratic nominee), he would have taken office 15 days before his 37th birthday (he was born March 19, 1860). Instead, he lost to William McKinley, who was born January 29, 1843, and took office 34 days after his 54th birthday. (McKinley won the popular vote, 51.0% to 46.7%, and the electoral vote, 271 to 176.) So the election of 1896 was the youngest campaign in history. Bryan went on to run again in 1900, again losing to McKinley, and then suffering a further defeat, against William Howard Taft in 1908. Bryan died at the age of 65, in 1925.
The second youngest candidate was West Point graduate George B. McClellan, who was the commanding general of the Union Army early in the Civil War, and governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. But when he lost to Abraham Lincoln’s re-election campaign of 1864, he was only 38 years old (he was born December 3, 1826). McClellan died at the age of 58, in late 1885.
The youngest campaigns were the elections of 1896, 1960, and 1860. In 1896, as I said, 54-year-old William McKinley defeated 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan. In 1960, it was the youngster John Kennedy defeating Vice President Richard Nixon, who was four years older than Kennedy.
On March 4, 1861 (Inauguration Day was March 4th, until the 20th Amendment changed it to January 20th, effective in 1937), Abraham Lincoln was 22 days past his 52nd birthday. In the election of 1860, he had defeated Vice President John C. Breckinridge (and also 64-year-old John Bell and 47-year-old Stephen Douglas—all four received electoral votes).
Breckinridge accomplished a great deal very early in life. Born January 16, 1821, he represented Kentucky in the House of Representatives from 1851 to 1855. In 1855, President Franklin Pierce appointed Breckinridge US Minister to Spain (and the Senate confirmed him), but he declined the appointment, and returned home to resume his law practice. In 1856, he was elected the youngest Vice President in US history, on James Buchanan’s ticket (he took office just after his 36th birthday). He lost the election of 1860 to Lincoln, but was elected to the Senate at the same time. He took his seat on March 4, 1861, but that summer, Kentucky seceded from the Union, and Breckinridge went with it. He was declared a traitor and expelled from the Senate on December 4, 1861. He served as a general in the Confederate army, and was the fifth (and final) Secretary of War of the Confederacy for a few months in 1865. After the war, he went into exile in Europe and Canada, and returned home in 1869, following President Johnson’s proclamation of amnesty. He died May 17, 1875.
The second youngest vice president to take office was Richard Nixon (he celebrated his 40th birthday 11 days before taking the oath of office). After serving two terms as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon lost the very close presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, and then became the only former vice president to be elected president in 1968 (and the only president to resign, in 1974).
The Five Oldest Presidents
Considered by age at inauguration, the list runs as follows:
1. Donald Trump was 70 years 220 days old when he was inaugurated on January 20, 2017. If Joe Biden wins this year’s election, he will break that record at the age of 78 years 61 days.
2. Ronald Reagan was 17 days shy of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated on January 20, 1989, and 17 days shy of his 78th birthday when he retired eight years later.
3. William Henry Harrison was 68 years 23 days old when he was inaugurated on March 4, 1841. The president who served the shortest term (31 days), he was the first to die in office, so he was only 68 years 54 days old when he left office.
4. James Buchanan was 65 years 315 days old when he was inaugurated in 1857, and 69 years 315 days old when he retired from office.
5. George H.W. Bush was 64 years 222 days old when he succeeded Reagan, in 1989, and 68 years 222 days old when he left office.
Considering age at the time the President left office, Dwight David Eisenhower moves into third place. He was only 62 years 98 days old when he was inaugurated in 1953, putting him seventh on the list, but serving two full terms (he and Reagan are the only two on this list to have served eight years as president), he was 70 years 98 days old when he retired.
The Five Youngest Presidents:
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution requires a president to be at least 35 years old.
1. Theodore Roosevelt. Born on October 27, 1858, he was 42 years 322 days old when he was inaugurated on September 14, 1901, after William McKinley was assassinated. To beat Roosevelt’s record as the youngest president in the election of 2024, the newly elected president will have to have been born after March 4, 1982.
2. John F. Kennedy. Born on May 29, 1917, he was 43 years 236 days old when he took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, after winning the election of 1960. To beat Kennedy’s record as the youngest president elected, the winner of the election of 2008 will have to have been born after May 29, 1981.
3. Bill Clinton. Born on August 19, 1946, he was 46 years 154 days old when he was inaugurated on January 20, 1993.
4. Ulysses S. Grant. Born on April 27, 1822, he was 46 years 311 days old when he was inaugurated on March 4, 1869.
5. Barack Obama. Born August 4, 1961, he was 47 years 169 days old when he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009.
In order to join this list (and knock Obama off), the president who wins the election of 2024 will have to have been born after August 4, 1977.
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Joe Biden is about to claim the Democratic nomination for President. He ran his primary campaign on the fact that he was Vice President during Barack Obama’s administration. That got me thinking about other Vice Presidents who ran for the Presidency. Well, my first thought was that Richard Nixon is the only person to serve as Vice President, retire from that office, and then later run for and win the Presidency (he was Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President from 1953 to 1961, and then elected President in the election of 1968).
For this discussion, I’m ignoring the Vice Presidents who succeeded to the Presidency upon the death or resignation of their President: John Tyler following William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841, Millard Fillmore following Zachary Taylor’s death in 1863, Andrew Johnson following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Chester Arthur following James Garfield’s assassination in 1881, Theodore Roosevelt following William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Calvin Coolidge following Warren Harding’s death in 1923, Harry Truman following Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Lyndon Johnson following John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and Gerald Ford following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
In 1796, George Washington announced he was retiring from the presidency, not running for a third term. His vice president, John Adams, was the heir apparent, and won the election of 1796 to become the second president. At that time, whoever came in second in the electoral college balloting was declared the vice president, which is how Thomas Jefferson wound up as Adams’ vice president. In 1800, Jefferson beat Adams to be elected the third president, and we stopped electing vice presidents to the presidency for quite a while (we also changed the method of choosing the vice president, because Aaron Burr put up a fuss).
In 1832, Martin Van Buren was elected vice president for Andrew Jackson’s second term. Midway through that term, Jackson had some thoughts about resigning so Van Buren could become president immediately, but he didn’t. In the election of 1836, Vice President Van Buren was elected to succeed Jackson in the presidency. And that’s the last time we elected a current Vice President to be President until George H.W. Bush (who was serving his second term under Ronald Reagan) won the top job in 1988.
John C. Breckinridge was the 14th Vice President, from 1857 to 1861 (serving under James Buchanan). Born in January 1821, he was the youngest vice president, taking office 47 days after his 36th birthday. In the election of 1860, Breckinridge was the presidential nominee of the Democratic party. He came in third in the popular vote in the severely divided country (he got about 18% of the vote), but second in the electoral college (which voted 180 for Abraham Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for John Bell, and 12 for Stephen Douglas). At the same time, his home state of Kentucky elected Brecknridge to the Senate. Breckinridge swore in his successor as vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and then Hamlin turned around and swore in the new senators, including Breckinridge, on March 4, 1861. With the commencement of Civil War hostilities, Breckinridge—a southern sympathizer—returned home, and eventually joined the fighting on the Confederate side. The Senate declared him a traitor, and expelled him on December 4, 1861. In February 1865, Breckinridge was appointed the fifth, and last, Secretary of War of the Confederacy. The post was abolished in May 1865. After the war, Breckenridge went into exile in Europe and Canada, and returned to the US in 1869. He worked in insurance and as a lawyer, and died in 1875.
Adlai Stevenson (born in 1835) was the 23rd Vice President, serving during Grover Cleveland’s second (non-consecutive) term from 1893 to 1897. In 1896, he had very little support at the Democratic convention to succeed Cleveland. Instead, they nominated William Jennings Bryan for the first time (of three). In 1900, Stevenson was the nominee for vice president with Bryan. This made him the fourth vice president to run for that post with two different presidential candidates, after George Clinton (Thomas Jefferson’s second and James Madison’s first vice president), John C. Calhoun (John Quincy Adams’ only and Andrew Jackson’s first vice president), and Thomas A. Hendricks (the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for vice president in 1876, and Grover Cleveland’s vice president from March 1885 until his death in November of that year). The only other one to try for the vice presidency with two difference presidential candidates was Charles W. Fairbanks, who was Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president from 1905 to 1909, and then the unsuccessful Republican nominee in 1916 on Charles Evans Hughes’ ticket. Stevenson died in 1914. His son, Lewis G., was Illinois secretary of state (1914–1917). His grandson and namesake, Adlai Ewing Stevenson II, was the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956 (and governor of Illinois). His great-grandson, Adlai Ewing Stevenson III, was a senator from Illinois from 1970 to 1981.
In 1940, 52-year-old Henry A. Wallace was elected vice president to serve during Franklin Roosevelt’s third term as president (after Roosevelt and his first vice president, John Nance Garner, had a falling-out over Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term, while Garner assumed it was his turn to be president). Wallace had been Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture since 1933 (his father, Henry C. Wallace, had held the same post from 1921 to 1924). At the 1944 Democratic Convention, party leaders were uncomfortable with the thought of Wallace becoming president (since Roosevelt’s survival—even to them—seemed iffy at best), so they forced Roosevelt to drop him from the ticket, and chose Harry Truman instead. After the election, Wallace left office, and Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Commerce. Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term, in April 1945, and Truman succeeded him. Truman fired Wallace in September 1946, in retaliation for Wallace’s speech urging conciliatory policies toward the Soviet Union. Wallace and his supporters then formed the Progressive Party, which nominated Wallace for the presidency in 1948 (the American Labor party also nominated him). Wallace got 2.4 percent of the popular vote, and then broke with the Progressive Party in 1950 over the Korean War. In 1952, he published a book called Where I Was Wrong, in which he declared the Soviet Union to be “utterly evil.” Wallace died in 1965.
Hubert Humphrey was born in 1911 in South Dakota, but is remembered for his relationship with Minnesota. He represented Minnesota in the Senate from 1949 to 1964. In 1952, he vied for the Democratic presidential nomination, but lost out to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, he tried again, and lost to John Kennedy. In 1956, Stevenson was the presidential nominee for the second time, but at the convention, he decided to create some excitement, and made a surprise announcement that the convention’s delegates would choose his running mate. This set off a one-day free-for-all scramble to win the nomination. The candidates included eventual nominee Senator Estes Kefauver, relative unknown freshman Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy (who came in a strong second), Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (whose son and namesake would be Vice President under Bill Clinton), and Humphrey, who received 134 votes out of the 600-plus necessary to win the nomination. (That donnybrook was the last time any presidential or vice presidential nomination of either the Democratic or Republican parties, went past the first ballot.) After losing the 1960 nomination race, Humphrey thought he was unlikely to ever become President unless he served as Vice President first, as that, he felt, was the only path he could follow to raise the money and build the nationwide organization and visibility he would need to win the nomination. (Though, as we’ve seen, excepting succession upon death, the vice presidency is a far less certain path to the presidency than a seat in the Senate or a governorship.) So he angled for the vice presidency in 1964 with President Lyndon Johnson (who had no vice president because John Kennedy died in office, and the 25th Amendment hadn’t been adopted yet), was chosen, and won that election. Humphrey resigned from his Senate seat, and was replaced by Walter Mondale (who would serve as Vice President from 1977 to 1981). On March 31, 1968, a week before the Wisconsin primary, President Johnson surprised everyone when he announced he was not going to run for a second full term. Humphrey announced his candidacy on April 27, won the nomination, and went on to lose the election to Richard Nixon. In 1970, Senator Eugene McCarthy also made a surprise announcement, declining to seek re-election, and Humphrey, who hadn’t planned to return to politics, jumped into the race, won the nomination, and then was elected to the Senate. He again represented Minnesota in the Senate, from 1971 until his death in 1978 (his wife, Muriel, was appointed to his seat until a special election was held to replace him).
Walter Mondale was born in Minnesota in 1928, and was appointed to the Senate when Humphrey resigned to become Vice President. Mondale kept the Senate seat until his own election as Vice President in 1976 on Jimmy Carter’s ticket. In 1980, Carter and Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming election victory. In 1984, Mondale was the Democratic nominee for president (and the first major party nominee to choose a female running mate: New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro). Mondale lost to Reagan’s landslide re-election. Mondale then return to the practice of law. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Mondale Ambassador to Japan (he served in that post until 1996). In 2002, Mondale stepped up to run for his old Senate seat as a last-minute replacement for Paul Wellstone, who had been killed in an airplane crash during the final two weeks of his re-election campaign. Mondale lost a close election to Saint Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. He is the oldest former Vice President, since George H.W. Bush’s death in 2018. The longest-lived Vice President was John Nance Garner, who died two weeks before his 99th birthday.
James Danforth “Dan” Quayle was born in 1947 in Indiana, represented Indiana in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1981, and in the Senate from 1981 until he was elected Vice President on George H.W. Bush’s ticket in 1988. Following their one term in the White House, Quayle opted out of running for the Republican nomination for President in 1996, but challenged George W. Bush for the nomination in 2000. He came in a distant eighth in the Ames Straw Poll of August 1999, and withdrew from the race in September. Dan Quayle lives in Arizona, and his son, Benjamin, represented Arizona in the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2013.
Al Gore is the only president or vice president to have been born in Washington, DC (in 1948). His father, Albert Gore, Sr., represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives (1939 to 1953) and the Senate (1953 to 1971). Al, Junior, represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives (1977 to 1985) and the Senate (1985 to 1993). In 1988, he ran for the presidential nomination, winning seven states and coming in third. In 1992, he was Bill Clinton’s running mate; at the ages of 45 and 44, they were the youngest presidential-vice presidential duo to be elected. In the election of 2000, Gore was the Democratic nominee for President, and won the popular vote by just over 500,000 votes (out of 105 million votes cast), but lost the Electoral College vote, 271-to-266 (with one abstention), to George W. Bush. Gore’s 266 electoral votes is the highest total for a losing candidate. Gore was the first person since Grover Cleveland in 1888 to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College (Cleveland won in 1884 and 1892). The other two were Rutherford Hayes in 1876, and John Quincy Adams in 1824. Gore was also the the first major-party presidential candidate to lose his home state (Tennessee) since George McGovern lost South Dakota in 1972.
And then there was Richard Milhous Nixon. Born in 1913 in California, the second of five brothers, he graduated from Whittier College and Duke University School of Law. He practiced law in California, and met his wife, Pat, in a community theatre group. In 1942, the Nixons moved to Washington, DC, and Richard got a job in the Office of Price Administration, which he did not enjoy. Later in the year, he enlisted in the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade. He served in logistics and administration during World War II, and was discharged as a lieutenant commander in March 1946. After the war, he returned to California, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the election of 1946. He was re-elected in 1948, and then elected to the Senate in 1950. At the age of 39, the Republican party nominated Nixon for Vice President on Dwight Eisenhower’s ticket, and they won re-election in 1956. In 1960, Nixon ran (with Eisenhower’s tepid support) for the presidency against Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy. Kennedy won by fewer than 112,000 votes (out of 68.8 million), and won the electoral vote 303-to-219 (with 15 for Robert Byrd). In 1962, Nixon ran for the governorship of California against incumbent Pat Brown, but lost by 5%. In an impromptu concession speech the morning after the election, Nixon blamed the media, saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” In 1964, he supported Barry Goldwater’s losing campaign against Lyndon Johnson, and in 1966, he campaigned for many Republicans running for Congress. In late 1967, he decided to run for President again, won the Republican nomination of 1968, and ran against sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He won the popular vote by 500,000 votes (0.7% in a three-way race, with George Wallace a distant third), and the electoral college 301–191–46. His 1972 re-election was one of the largest electoral landslides in American politics (he beat George McGovern in the popular vote count, 47.2 million to 29.2 million, 60.7 to 37.5%; and in the Electoral College, 520-to-17). Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974, and died in 1993.
Which brings us to Joseph Robinette Biden, Junior. Born in Pennsylvania on November 20, 1942, he earned his law degree from Syracuse University in 1969, and started practicing in Delaware that same year. In 1970, he was elected to the New Castle County Council, and in 1972, before his 30th birthday, he was elected to the Senate. His birthday came before he took his seat, and he became the sixth youngest US Senator ever. On December 18, 1972, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash (his two sons were injured), and he considered resigning from the Senate to care for his sons, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield convinced him not to. Biden served in the Senate from 1973 until 2009. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in both 1988 and 2008. In 2008, Barack Obama won the nomination, and chose Biden as his running mate. In 2015, following the death of his son, Biden opted to not seek the presidential nomination. But in 2019, he chose to run for the third time, and is now poised to run for the presidency.
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