Attend closely to each candidate. Ask how the No. 2 plays on the national stage and how much the stakes matter. More than you might think.
When the Veep steers the ship, at times it’s right into the rocks. Whatever your political party, remember then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the unserious pick made by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the elderly 2008 Republican standard-bearer. That told us, right quick, about his wild judgment.
Teddy Roosevelt is the sunniest member of the club who succeeded a president who died in office. That was a century ago. Since April 1945, Democrat Harry S. Truman, the ailing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, has been seen as another fortunate successor.
Sure, we get lucky across the stepping stones of time. They say Gerald Ford — the only Veep ever to succeed a president who resigned — was a decent chap in the House of Representatives and as president for two years.
But look at the company he kept in the basement with Richard Nixon, who hated a long list of people with a vengeance. Ford pardoned Nixon for his Watergate crimes, and for that he lost the White House race against Jimmy Carter in 1976.
History hasn’t pardoned Ford for pardoning Nixon. That is as it should be.
Early leaders in their ambition and lust for power, Jefferson had two Virginia protégés, James Madison and James Monroe, succeed him. The key word is “Virginia,” for they owned slave plantations within riding distance, of course. Nothing but the best for Jefferson.
This created a Virginia presidential dynasty for, wait for it, 24 straight years.
Jefferson had two vice presidents, one of whom was the elegant Aaron Burr, who would have made a better commander in chief than the hapless Madison. The fourth president fled the capital as the British army burned it in 1814.
Unlike Jefferson or Madison, Burr was a Revolutionary War army officer. But he was a younger New Yorker who tied Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. Jefferson had an enemies list, too, and intrigued against Burr, keeping up the famous charm.
Setting another precedent for the later Bush family, Adams brought his namesake son, John Quincy Adams, to the highest office in 1824, shortly before the father died. But slaveholder and general Andrew Jackson “Old Hickory” beat him in a bitter rematch.
Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, succeeded him peacefully, just as Yankee John Adams, the first vice president, succeeded the general on horseback, Washington. Different as they were, the first Federalists tried to set an example for future generations.
I might add that Jackson groomed a protégé to the presidency, Polk, after he left office. Jackson and Jefferson were presidential history’s only “doubleheaders.”
Then there was beloved Abraham Lincoln, who worked the land himself. But a Washington, D.C., field trip reminded me he made a near-fatal choice in his 1864 running mate.
Oh, the winds of history blew me away to a stark, chilling sight: a military courtroom. The “Lincoln conspirators” were tried here, with a makeshift gallows built outside at Fort McNair. Four assassination conspirators were convicted and hanged in the summer of 1865. The 16th president was the first one to die in office.
As Civil War guns were stilled, Andrew Johnson, the vice president, could not have been less like Lincoln. The roughhewn tactless Tennessean, was not one to heal wounds of war. Hated by North and South alike, he was impeached.
It seems the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite.
The four — one was a woman, innkeeper Mary Surratt — were treated harshly, on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s orders: kept wrapped in hot blankets and hoods in Washington’s heavy heat. The nation’s blood had spilled again; Lincoln was the final casualty of the Civil War.
— Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.