Ronda Walker: the significant, but often under-valued role of Vice President

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Mike Pence
Donald Trump's Vice Presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Both of the major political parties in the U.S. are in the midst of selecting the individual who will run for the office of vice president. We know the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to be his running mate. Next week, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, will announce her selection.

Of the 47 vice presidents who have served the United States of America, nine have succeeded to the presidency due to death or resignation of the president. Five more veeps were later elected to the presidency. In total, 14 vice presidents have become president of the United States. That is almost 30 percent, a significant number considering the high stakes involved. Yet, as an electorate we are largely indifferent to the individual who is placed second on the ticket.

The first vice president of the United States was John Adams, elected in 1789 to serve under President George Washington. Article 2 Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution establishes the role of vice president, to succeed the president in case of removal from office, death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office. The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America. He shall hold his office during the term of four years, together with the vice president, who is chosen for the same term.

However, the role of vice president is not constitutionally vested with any executive branch power. No power. Well, no real power. The VP is the president of the United States Senate, but rarely presides. That role is usually left to the president pro tempore (meaning, president for the time being) of the Senate. The position of vice president has a remarkable lack of responsibility and is perhaps one of the most underutilized jobs in the country. Yet, that individual is literally one heartbeat away from becoming the most powerful person in the world.

In the modern era, presidential nominees have hand-selected the individual who will become vice president should they win the general election. Many variables are taken into consideration when making the veep selection.

Often, this person is selected based on a perceived home-state advantage, meaning if the presidential nominee selects a running mate from a large battleground state, it will increase their odds of winning that state. However, research has proven such an advantage a myth. The veep on the ticket is no guarantee to deliver their home state; just ask Paul Ryan, Sargent Shriver, Thomas Marshall and some other guys you’ve probably never heard of.

Regardless, presidential nominees tend to base their pick on geography versus ability. Two modern era exceptions to that pattern that come to mind are Walter Mondale and Dick Cheney. Both individuals brought a lot of policy and leadership experience to the White House, and both came from small states with few delegates (Minnesota and Wyoming, respectively). Each of these men won their home state. They are both examples of selections based on a desire by the presidential candidate to strengthen the ticket with an emphasis on policy and leadership experience and perhaps even balance out some of their own weaknesses — both real and perceived.

There are some memorable vice presidents and some not so memorable. In the memorable crowd are Spiro Agnew, Al Gore, Aaron Burr, and Dan Quayle.

On the not-so-well-known list is an Alabamian, William Rufus DeVane King. Most Alabamians do not realize that one of our own served in the role of vice president. Although born in North Carolina, William King moved to Alabama as a young adult in the early 1800s and established a cotton plantation in what would eventually become Dallas County. King became vice president in 1853 and served approximately six weeks before dying of tuberculosis.

Exactly 100 years after King, an Alabama slave owner, ascended to the role of vice president, a remarkable 8-year-old Alabama girl named Condoleezza Rice was preparing for a future in academic and public service that would far exceed the role William King played in our nation. Her friends Denise, Carole, Addie Mae and Cynthia would be proud.

The electoral college went through several iterations before settling on the selection process we currently know, which follows the pattern of the presidential nominee selecting his own vice presidential nominee. The VP has to be a natural-born United States citizen, at least 35 years old, and to have resided in the U.S. for 14 years.

Of particular interest in the modern era is the case of the Richard Nixon/Spiro Agnew ticket. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with the former Maryland governor as his VP. In 1972 the Nixon/Agnew ticket was re-elected to a second term, beating South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and ambassador Sargent Shriver. As an aside — Shriver was married to Eunice Kennedy, JFK’s sister, and he was the father of Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, Arnold’s ex-wife. Arnold, of course, being the former governor of California.

Back on track, not long after their 1972 re-election, the Nixon/Agnew team would face serious trouble — but we are not talking about Watergate quite yet. It was Agnew who had to resign his office because of charges of extortion, tax fraud and bribery dating back to his official days in Maryland. Charges he denied and claimed were ginned up by Nixon aides to redirect scrutiny from Nixon to Agnew. Nonetheless, with Agnew gone, the position of VP was vacated.

Under the terms of the 25th Amendment, Nixon appointed House Minority Leader Gerald Ford as VP. Then, following Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal, Ford ascended to the presidency of the United States of America. Ford was never elected to be vice president or president, but he served as both, the only American to ever do so. Once Ford became president, he needed a VP and selected former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Interestingly, he considered George H.W. Bush, but went with Rockefeller instead.

So, before we dismiss the importance of the office of vice president, consider that a House minority leader from Michigan became president without ever being elected to that office. Neither Ford nor Rockefeller was elected to serve in the highest positions of American national government, yet both found themselves doing just that. Elections have consequences; the top of the ticket matters — but so does the No. 2 spot.

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Ronda M. Walker is a member of the Montgomery County Commission, a wife, and a mother of four.