This week, the conversation of Vice Presidential running mates has come front and center for both presumptive nominees just days ahead of the party conventions. In this corner, the Democrats are floating a long list of potential Veep choices to join former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on stage in Philadelphia: people like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and even populist leftist hero Elizabeth Warren are all being mentioned. On the right side of the aisle, Donald Trump is reportedly considering candidates like Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and more vociferously, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But is the role of Vice President really all it’s cracked up to be? Many people in American history would tell you no. According to the opinion of many, it’s a thankless job with little to no substantive responsibility, the ultimate second fiddle whose primary concern is whether or not your boss’s heart is ticking today.
School children in the United States are taught the legions of great heroes who assumed the iconic role of the Presidency; VPs get considerably less attention. And buried in the annals of Americana stands the 19th century politician from New England who serves as a cautionary tale of ego and the denial of the Veep position: Daniel Webster.
Webster is hardly the stuff of American political legend. Outside of the small, for-profit school in Nashua, NH that bears his name (Go Eagles), the heights of Webster’s achievements were capped at Secretary of State.
Nothing to scoff at certainly; but considering his ambitions — and two disastrous choices — Webster’s career fell far short of potential.
In 1839, Webster was one of a handful of candidates seeking the Whig Party nomination for President. He was, according to the Chicago Tribune in 1997, a, “…moody and cruel man, one who drank to excess and one whom persistent rumors labeled a libertine.” Webster was an accomplished statesman, no doubt about it; while he was often remembered as a tremendously skilled orator, his cantankerous personality left much to be desired. Back before giving your political rivals nicknames was the fashionable thing to do to win primaries, his monikers included “Black Dan,” “Prince of Traitors,” and “Whore.”
Webster would lose the nomination in 1839 to William Henry Harrison of Ohio, the Whig Party favorite; before the general election against President Martin Van Buren, Harrison formally asked Webster to be his running mate.
Webster’s response is the stuff of American lore and fascination:
“I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
He rejected Harrison’s offer, seeing the role of the Vice President as simply beneath the decorated achievements of a statesman like himself. After winning the election of 1840, Harrison famously gave the longest inaugural address in American history on a frigid day: 8,445 words, read over 1 hour and 45 minutes (ironically edited by Webster himself) — before contracting pneumonia and dying just 32 days later.
John Tyler became the next President by default, with Webster looking in from the outside.
It’s far too horrible a Shakespearean tragedy to wish upon anyone; Webster’s ego and sense of self dominated his decision to not pursue the Vice Presidential role, the same position about which John Adams once decried, “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing.”
Here’s where it goes from fall-from-grace to full-on American catastrophe.
After a term in the Senate, Webster sought the Presidency again through the Whig Party in 1848. But he was easily defeated by Zachary Taylor, the hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War whose battlefield bravery had earned him comparisons to George Washington. Webster didn’t stand a chance, however his experience and skills made his a valuable asset to Taylor.
Webster was once again asked to join the Whig Party ticket as a Vice President, this time to Taylor. Again, as legend has it, Webster refused.
Taylor won that election. However, as those of you with total recall from civics classes will remember, Taylor died in office after about a year-and-a-half later from a stomach condition. Millard Fillmore became President.
Daniel Webster — again — did not.
The role of the Vice President may not be a sexy one; centuries of American politicians have decried the position as inoperative, a fruitless figurehead. Thomas Marshall, the Veep under President Woodrow Wilson, once remarked the role was, “…a man in a cataleptic fit; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.”
But someone from each party will soon get the nod here in 2016 to hopefully join the ranks of those who have served in this “cataleptic” role of Senate President. And both of those people — whoever they are — will square off on October 4, 2016, in Farmville, Virginia for the VP Debate, each person perhaps contemplating in the back of his or her head what so, so many before them have wondered:
Do I really want this job?
J.D. Durkin (@jiveDurkey) is an editorial producer and columnist at Mediaite.
[image via Wikipedia Commons]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.