Their responsibilities have never been properly defined, save for the fact that they are a heartbeat away from the presidency

After four years of loyally serving Donald Trump, after keeping silent on all the egregious acts of the now departing toxic president, Mike Pence has had to hear that screaming message from Trump loyalists raiding the Capitol last week. “Hang Mike Pence,” they cried, for they were pretty sure Pence would not do their bidding, would not and could not overturn the results of the election their cult leader in the White House had been demanding all along. 

One quite does not know what might or could have happened to Pence had those insurrectionists managed to locate him. Maybe they would have lynched him. Maybe they would have shot him. He and his family were escorted to safety in the building. It is something Pence will forever remember. It is what he will never forgive Trump for. And now there is all that pressure on him to invoke the 25th amendment to the US constitution and remove Trump from office only days before Joe Biden is sworn in as America’s new leader.

America’s vice presidents have generally been an unenviable lot. Their responsibilities have never been properly defined, save for the fact that they are a heartbeat away from the presidency. They wait for the president to be incapacitated or go the way of all flesh before they can assert themselves. Of course, there have been presidents who have assigned specific roles to their vice presidents, but those instances are few and far between. 

As John Nance Garner, one of the vice presidents who served under President Franklin Roosevelt, once put it in all the bitterness he could gather, the vice presidency was “not worth a quart of warm spit.” Being vice president, Garner would say, was the worst thing that had happened to him. That, of course, was a matter of opinion.

One goes back to Andrew Johnson, the vice president who succeeded to the presidency after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson did not make much of an impression as president, indeed made a mess of things. The first president to be impeached, he was saved by a single vote in the Senate. And then he took the road to oblivion. 

A century later, there was Lyndon Baines Johnson, vice president under President John F Kennedy. It was his sad fortune to ascend to the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Johnson, a powerful senator when Kennedy picked him as his running mate in 1960, had a mixed record as president. 

His Great Society program was admired, but his Vietnam policy led to disaster. Johnson did not seek a second term in 1968, but that did not help his vice president Hubert Humphrey any. It was Humphrey who won the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency in that year, but then found himself in grave difficulties trying to win the election as president. He needed to spell out his own policies regarding Vietnam, but at the same time could not publicly break with his president. It was only when President Johnson, toward the very end of the election campaign, suspended the bombing of North Vietnam that Humphrey saw his poll ratings rise. But it was too late. He lost to Richard Nixon in November 1968.

Perhaps no vice presidential story can be more poignant than that of Richard Nixon. He served President Dwight Eisenhower loyally for eight years, but when Eisenhower was asked at some point if he could think of Nixon’s contribution to the government, the president wanted to be given a week to remember. That hurt Nixon and later when Nixon was elected president, a dying Eisenhower apologized to him for the remark. 

Nixon’s tragedy was that he lurched from one bad moment to another. His vice president Spiro Agnew was forced to resign over a milk-related scandal in 1973. A year later, Nixon became the first president to resign as the Watergate scandal threatened him with impeachment and removal from office and possibly criminal conviction. Nixon’s second vice president Gerald Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

President George HW Bush, having been vice president under Ronald Reagan for eight years, had Dan Quayle as his vice president. Quayle was young, handsome, and compared himself to John Kennedy. But he did not have the spark needed in a president and is today a forgotten figure in American history. President Carter’s vice president Walter Mondale lost the presidential election to a second-term seeking Reagan in 1984, but later served as US ambassador to Japan in the times of Bill Clinton.

President Clinton’s vice president Al Gore was deprived of the presidency when the US Supreme Court intervened to stop the counting of votes in the presidential election in 2000. Today, Gore is a prominent activist in the campaign to roll back global climate change, respected worldwide.

There have been all the painful moments when vice presidents, having lost the race for the presidency, have formalized the triumph of their rivals and their own defeat through announcing the results of presidential elections before a joint session of the US Congress. Richard Nixon, losing the election by a whisker, announced John Kennedy’s victory in line with such constitutionally ordained circumstances in 1960. Hubert Humphrey did a similar act when he officially recorded his rival’s victory, the rival being Nixon, in 1968. Al Gore kept a stiff upper lip when he told Congress that George W Bush had been elected the new president in 2000. 

John F Kennedy wished to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956, but was rebuffed. Nelson Rockefeller, having tried to be president for years, ended up serving President Ford as vice president. Robert F Kennedy hoped Lyndon Johnson would choose him as his running mate in 1964, but Johnson was in little mood to be overshadowed by another Kennedy. And Ford, having lost to Carter in 1976, lobbied for Ronald Reagan to choose him as his running mate in 1980. Reagan did not oblige him.

Mike Pence is today caught between a rock and a hard place. But watch him. He has his sights on the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024. He could be facing Kamala Harris in the race for the White House, assuming that Joe Biden does not seek a second term as president.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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