By the end of August, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will let Americans know about his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Presumably, President Barack Obama will keep Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket in the No. 2 slot. Political observers spend a lot of time speculating on the ability of a vice presidential candidate to appeal to a particular region or other voter demographic. Such speculation tends to treat potential vice presidents as little more than window dressing in a national campaign.
But vice presidents sometimes end up succeeding to the presidency through the death or incapacity of a commander-in-chief. One vice president, Gerald Ford, became president through the resignation of a president, Richard Nixon.
The distinct possibility of vice presidential succession is underscored in the latest installment of author Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro’s new book, “The Passage of Power,” details Johnson’s initial reluctance to accept a spot on presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign ticket as his running mate. Johnson was a powerful majority leader of the U.S. Senate. He was reluctant to become vice president, trading his influential Senate role for a position that had little real power.
But while mulling the vice presidency, Johnson had his staff research how many presidents had died in office. In 1960, Caro notes, “the answer was seven. Since thirty-three men had been president, that had been seven out of thirty-three: The chances of a vice president succeeding to the presidency due to a president’s death were about one out of five. And when that question was asked about presidents in modern times, the odds against such an occurrence got shorter — better. During the last hundred years before 1960, five presidents had died in office – Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, Warren Harding in 1923 and of course Franklin Roosevelt in 1945.”
It’s unsettling to think of a potential vice president — or a sitting vice president — calculating presidential mortality rates in order to gauge his political prospects. But all vice presidential candidates should carefully consider whether they’re ready to be president. Voters, too, should strongly consider whether a vice presidential candidate seems qualified to serve in the nation’s highest office.
As history tells us, a vice president can become president in a fateful instant. That’s what happened to Lyndon Johnson on Nov. 22, 1963.
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