by Lowman S. Henry | July 20, 2020

Normally, which of course nothing is, the high drama in July of a Presidential election year centers on who the presumptive nominees will select as their Vice Presidential running mates.  COVID-19 and civil unrest have instead dominated the national discourse, but with Democrats set to hold some variation of a nominating convention in about a month speculation is mounting on who Joe Biden will choose.

Should Biden be elected in November he will become the oldest person in American history to ascend to the presidency.  That, coupled with growing concerns over his mental acuity, makes his Vice Presidential selection more meaningful that is typically the case.

Despite the obligatory bromides of having a running mate capable of becoming president on day one; Biden has chosen to play identity politics with his pick.  Months ago he promised to select a woman.  Such a selection would not be historic.  Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for national office by a major party when she ran with Walter Mondale in 1984.  And then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was the first Republican woman when she ran with John McCain in 2008.

History is not on Joe Biden’s mind, but checking the identity box is. Recent events have potentially narrowed that search to a Black female, although Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren remains a top contender as Biden attempts to pacify the ultra-Left wing of his party.

Not having “ready from day one” as the top criterion is deeply concerning given the very real possibility Biden may not be able to complete a full term.  And, even if he does, he has already limited himself to one term making his pick the automatic front runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2024.

“Ready from day one” has often not been the foremost factor in Vice Presidential selections.  The second slot has often been used to bind the party together after a hard fought convention, as with the selection of Chester A. Arthur who was James A. Garfield’s running mate in 1880.  The office has been used for electoral purposes, such as the selection of Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson who ran successfully with John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But Vice Presidents do, usually quite unexpectedly, become President. The first Vice President to be suddenly thrust into the chief executive’s role was John Tyler.  William Henry Harrison had delivered a lengthy inaugural address in inclement March weather, became ill and died just one month into his term making his the shortest presidency in history.

The nation’s 12th president, Zachary Taylor succumbed to illness elevating Millard Fillmore to the presidency.  Interestingly Taylor had never even met Fillmore until several days before their inauguration as they had been pared by delegates at the Whig national convention.

Of course the first president to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin had been replaced on the 1864 ticket by Andrew Johnson.  In historical retrospect that appears to have been a major mistake as Johnson became the first president to be impeached, escaping removal from office by just one vote.

Regrettably other assassinations have followed.  Just months into his term James A. Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker.  He lingered for several months before dying and passing the presidency to Arthur, who proved to be a capable if unremarkable replacement.

Likewise William McKinley was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1901 thus elevating Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency.  Roosevelt became a major political force and is regarded as one of the nation’s better chief executives.   Again in 1963 tragedy struck when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and Lyndon B. Johnson finished the term and was then elected to one of his own.

Two other presidents passed away in office leaving the presidency to successors who are generally highly regarded.  President Warren G. Harding died in August of 1923 putting Calvin Coolidge in the White House. And, on April 12, 1945 just days into his fourth term Franklin Roosevelt passed away resulting in the presidency of Harry S. Truman.

The nation has been generally fortunate that accidental or unexpected presidencies have turned out reasonably well.  Nobody can predict when again a Vice President will be called upon to lead the nation.  Therefore identity, ideological, and even ticket-balancing politics should be set aside and “ready from day one” should be the penultimate criteria.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected].) 

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