A veteran journalist who has published copiously about the vice presidency offers an exhaustive survey.
Syndicated politics columnist Witcover (Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, 2010, etc.) relates the saga of all 47 vice presidents of the United States, from John Adams to Joe Biden. Although biographical information is abundant for each man, the author emphasizes the political context of each vice presidency, showing how each vice president became the nominee, whether each worked well in tandem with the president, and what happened to each when the four-year term expired. Only readers who have studied the White House in depth are likely to recognize names such as William R. King, Garret A. Hobart and Charles Curtis. Witcover explains why most vice presidents, despite impressive accomplishments before election, served their terms in near obscurity. The inattention of the Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and the courts regarding sensible selection and succession procedures seems shocking when understood within the historical timeline Witcover presents. At first, the vice president was the runner-up in the election for president, meaning incompatible rivals might be thrown together. Later, tradition dictated the president and the vice president be from the same political party, but the line of succession remained unclear. In one of the most surprising chapters, Witcover examines the confusion in the mind of Thomas R. Marshall during the extended, mostly undisclosed incapacity of President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's wife and the medical staff refused to keep Marshall in the loop, despite the strong possibility that Marshall would become president. Not until 1967, with the adoption of the 25th Amendment, did the procedure for filling a vacant presidency become completely clear. That amendment became operative only six years later, when the disgraced Richard Nixon chose Gerald Ford as the new president. In a final chapter, Witcover looks back on the evolution of the vice presidency to surmise that it now can probably be considered an "assistant presidency" rather than a do-nothing sinecure.
Extremely impressive research informs this valuable book of American history.