Paul Ryan for vice president! Really? Who’s Paul Ryan? A recent CNN poll indicated that more than half the country doesn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. This anonymity is quickly evaporating, however, as the Internet and airwaves are filled with stories about this energetic young congressman from Wisconsin. We’ll all know a lot about Paul Ryan by Election Day.
But what about the job? Americans have never known much about the responsibilities of the vice-presidency. Even our first vice president, John Adams, referred to it as “the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” We can only wonder if Ryan knew much about the job before accepting Mitt Romney’s invitation.
Adams was not alone in his views of the vice presidency. Many of the 46 men who succeeded him have said much worse. The humorist Finley Peter Dunne, in the guise of saloon keeper Martin J. Dooley, perhaps captured the office best when he said that the vice presidency was “not a crime exactly. You can’t be sent to jail for it, but it’s kind of a disgrace. It’s like writing anonymous letters.”
Not much of an endorsement — even for an office that was an afterthought at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the job has a fancy title but few responsibilities. Other than presiding over the Senate, the vice president of the United States has no constitutional duties.
In fact, it’s not even clear that the founders of the republic intended that the vice president would succeed to the presidency upon the death of an incumbent. The Constitution states that executive authority would “devolve” to the vice president due to the death, removal, or inability of the president to perform the duties of the office. But the language is ambiguous, and many founders believed that the vice president was to serve only as an acting president until the election of a new president.
It was John Tyler, vice-president under the ill-fated William Henry Harrison, who resolved the matter by impulsively taking the oath of office as president after Harrison’s untimely death in 1841. No one challenged Tyler’s decision, and he served out the term. Although he was later lampooned as “His Accidency,” Tyler had established a tradition of succession on the death of a president. That tradition was finally codified in 1967 through the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
Of course, not all vice presidents were nonentities. At least three — Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, Harry S. Truman in 1944, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963 — became powerful, effective presidents. Yet it is unlikely that any of these three men would have achieved greatness had it not been for the sudden death of their respective presidents. As vice presidents, they had been excluded from the inner circle of power.
But significant, if informal, changes to the office of vice president came in 1976 with the election of Walter Mondale. With the support of President Jimmy Carter, Mondale became a key administration adviser. In fact, Mondale enhanced the office by taking on duties traditionally performed by the president. Mondale’s successors further expanded the duties of the vice president by accepting such tough assignments as the space program and government inefficiency.
And recently Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have taken the office to yet new levels of power and influence by transforming it into a vital center of power and authority within their administrations. Both men had prior government experience that enhanced their president’s agendas. They quickly became first counselors to their respective presidents, and they did it in a position that was little more than an afterthought at the constitutional convention in 1788.
If elected, will Paul Ryan inherit such power and influence? He will if he can set aside future political ambitions, work behind the scenes, and become an extension of his president. Ryan’s power will be tied to Romney’s fortunes as president. If he looks to the recent past, Ryan will learn that when the two offices function in tandem, the vice presidency is more than the “insignificant office” occupied by John Adams.
Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.