October 31, 1999

October 31, 1999 | Commentary on

Oval Office Chemistry Often a Volatile Mix

The vice president's recent attempts to distance himself from the president, an effort on display again in Wednesday's New Hampshire Democratic tete-a-tete, is old news. Very old news - like 200 years old.

As Al Gore steps gingerly away from Bill Clinton, he's following a time-honored tradition. Most relationships between presidents and vice presidents have been beset with tensions.

Indeed, the first three administrations revealed how disparate relationships between the nation's highest two officeholders can be. George Washington and John Adams trusted and respected each other. Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed over policy. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tried to do each other in.

In the nation's earliest years, the candidate who placed second in the Electoral College automatically became vice president. The Framers of the Constitution logically assumed the second-highest post would go to the second-most-qualified candidate.

Adams, a feisty New Englander respected for his integrity, appeared the perfect partner for the unanimously elected Washington. And, as expected, Adams dutifully advanced the president's agenda by casting 29 tie-breaking votes in the Senate in Washington's favor.

But when Adams won the presidency, and Jefferson, the loser of the hotly contested 1796 election, became his second-in-command, things turned nasty. Jefferson spent his time plotting to replace Adams in four years. He succeeded and, knowing full well the damage that a vice president can cause, promptly banished his own, Burr, from the inner circle. Burr then cast a tie-breaking vote against a favored administration measure.

Burr's legacy as vice president - other than killing Alexander Hamilton, the former Treasury secretary, in a duel - was the 12th Amendment, which provided for the separate balloting for the two high offices. It passed in 1804.

But the problems continued. John Tyler (the other half of ''Tippecanoe'') unexpectedly succeeded to the presidency and refused to enact William Henry Harrison's Whig program.

Vice Presidents Chester A. Arthur (Garfield), Adlai E. Stevenson (Cleveland), Charles W. Fairbanks (Theodore Roosevelt), and James

Sherman (Taft) all consorted with their presidents' adversaries. Andrew Jackson probably wished the vice presidency had been abolished - as the statesman and diplomat Governeur Morris had recommended in the midst of the Jefferson-Burr brawl. Old Hickory feuded with Vice President John C. Calhoun over everything from states' rights to appointments to etiquette. Calhoun eventually joined Jackson's tormentors in the Senate.

James K. Polk's vice president, George Dallas, ruined his own chance of moving up when he broke a tie in favor of an administration tariff reduction that was unpopular in his native Pennsylvania. (Loyalty has its price.)

Calvin Coolidge's number two, Charles Dawes, cut short his political career by reaching the Senate chamber too late to cast the deciding vote that would have confirmed the president's controversial choice for attorney general. Insufficient loyalty can also be costly.)

War presidents Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt kept military and reconstruction plans secret from their vice presidents. When Wilson took ill, he and his advisers excluded Vice President Thomas Marshall from administration deliberations. (Some think Mrs. Wilson became ''acting president.'') After Roosevelt's death, Harry Truman inherited the White House unaware of the Manhattan Project.

The modern vice presidency evolved during the Eisenhower administration, in which a youthful Vice President Richard M. Nixon played the eager understudy.

While he never established the comfort level with Ike that, say, Walter Mondale had with Jimmy Carter, Nixon undertook good-will missions abroad, oversaw the end of discrimination in government contracting, and settled a labor dispute. Even though his boss later had trouble recalling Nixon's accomplishments at a press conference, Ike saw his vice president as qualified to succeed him. Ronald Reagan was reported to have thought the same of George Bush.

Nixon's vice presidential successor, Lyndon Johnson, seemed to get on well enough with President John F. Kennedy, but privately resented how ''First Brother'' Robert treated him. Historians still debate whether LBJ assisted or undermined the presidential campaign of his number two, Hubert H. Humphrey.

And so it's gone over the years with the nation's Top Two. By comparison, Gore's tweaks at Clinton - his suggestion that perhaps he does not need the president's help campaigning - barely register on the historical scale.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, is a former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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Published in The Boston Globe (10/31/99)