Strained Relationships between Presidents and Vice Presidents are Nothing New
tags: presidential history,vice presidents
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
The United States has had 45 presidents of the United States, and 49 vice presidents. The relationship between presidents and vice presidents has not always been easy or supportive, with the understanding that presidents have great authority, and vice presidents are considered historically as insignificant and powerless.
So the news that former vice President Mike Pence, belatedly, finally made clear his disagreement with President Trump regarding the issue of the Electoral College vote count on January 6, 2021, brings to mind that while it seemed on the surface that Trump and Pence had a cordial relationship, with Pence being very obsequious and sycophantic with Trump, clearly it was a difficult relationship in private.
And it brings to mind how many times a vice president has been either openly or quietly critical of the president they served under, in or out of office. For a total of 19 times, there have been difficult relationships between the top two officeholders in American history.
To begin with, we have the case of President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson (1797-1801), with the odd circumstance that Jefferson was Adams’ opponent in the first ever contested presidential election in 1796. The two men were once friendly colleagues, and would again become cordial after retirement, but had a very testy, strained relationship in their term of office, as Jefferson opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and joined with James Madison in issuing the defiant Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response. The two men competed against each other again in 1800, and Adams was so embittered by his defeat that he refused to attend the inauguration on March 4, 1801.
After that same election, Jefferson’s running mate Aaron Burr contended that the two men had tied in electoral votes, forcing the decision to the House of Representatives. Alexander Hamilton promoted Jefferson, leading to the fatal duel between Hamilton and Burr in 1804. Jefferson was furious with Burr for creating the constitutional crisis, refused to communicate with him during the four years of the term, and dumped him when he ran for reelection in 1804.
John Quincy Adams had John C. Calhoun (1825-1829) as his vice president, but the two men did not get along, particularly on the issue of the 1828 Tariff. Calhoun called this “The Tariff of Abominations.” He wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest that year, promoting the concept of nullification and secession. Calhoun switched his support to Andrew Jackson in 1828, serving as his vice president from 1829-1832. Jackson was not aware that Calhoun had authored the controversial document, which would lead to a break between Jackson and Calhoun, starting at the Jefferson Day Dinner in 1830 and continuing to 1832. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky intervened to stop the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 from leading to secession and potential civil war; Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency with three months remaining in the term.
James Buchanan’s vice president John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) had strained relations with him, as he had supported incumbent President Franklin Pierce at the Democratic National Convention in 1856, and then switched to support Stephen Douglas. While Breckinridge did some sustained campaigning for Buchanan, the two men were never very close and had very few meetings during the four years of the term. Rarely did Buchanan consult Breckinridge on patronage appointments. Breckinridge went on to run for president when Buchanan decided not to run for reelection in 1860.
Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president (1861-1865), had a good working relationship with Lincoln during their four year term, but did not visit the White House very often, had little influence on Lincoln, and for some unknown reason, did not get along with the First Lady. So Lincoln chose to replace him with Andrew Johnson in an attempt to gain Democratic votes for the election of 1864 against General George McClellan, whom Lincoln had dismissed for incompetence in battle. Hamlin missed being president by six weeks, but clearly would have been a better president than Andrew Johnson.
Charles Fairbanks, Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president in his full term (1905-1909), was hostile to Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” progressive agenda, as he was a strong conservative. Roosevelt had earlier labeled him a “reactionary machine politician,” and refused to give Fairbanks any significant role in his administration. Roosevelt backed Secretary of War William Howard Taft to be his successor in the 1908 campaign. As a result, Fairbanks backed President Taft in 1912, over Roosevelt’s third-party “Bull Moose” Progressive candidacy.
Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president (1913-1921), had a very difficult relationship with Wilson. Wilson refused to give Marshall any significant tasks, and growing animosity emerged as Wilson developed a strong dislike for his vice president. After Wilson suffered a stroke in the fall of 1919 Marshall was kept out of the loop as to Wilson’s health conditions. First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson conducted cabinet meetings, and Marshall was not utilized to try to win support for the controversial Versailles Treaty and League of Nations membership. There was a push for Marshall to take authority as “acting president,” but Marshall was unwilling to antagonize Wilson, whom he never was able to visit until the last day of the term. This was a constitutional crisis, due to Wilson’s stubborn personality, but did not lead to action to prevent similar future crises of succession in cases of presidential incapacity. Only after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 did Congress move toward the adoption of the 25th Amendment in 1967, a half-century after the Wilson debacle.
Calvin Coolidge’s vice president Charles G. Dawes (1925-1929) was not able to get along well with Coolidge; Dawes promoted the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief legislation during the term, but Coolidge vetoed it. They became alienated from each other, and Dawes declined to attend cabinet meetings. Dawes hoped to be the running mate of Herbert Hoover in 1928, but Coolidge made it clear that he would consider his nomination to be an insult. The fact that Dawes, while vice president, had shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925, for promoting the Dawes Plan, which allowed Weimar Germany to restore and stabilize its economy, did not help the relationship between the two men.
John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president in his first two terms (1933-1941), was a southern conservative, who had competed against FDR in 1932, but agreed to be his running mate. Garner disagreed on much of FDR’s New Deal programs, including New Deal deficit spending, the enlargement of the Supreme Court proposal of 1937, and the response to sit-down strikes and other labor policies in the late 1930s. Garner also was angered by FDR’s attempt to purge Southern conservative House members in the midterm elections of 1938. Garner assumed FDR would not run again in 1940, so began a campaign for the presidency. Not until the summer of that year did Roosevelt engineer a “spontaneous” call for his nomination at the Democratic National Convention, further alienating Garner. So FDR ran for his third term with Henry A. Wallace as his vice president.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s time as vice president under John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) was an unhappy period, as the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, worked against Johnson having any real impact on the policies of the administration. This came about after RFK tried to convince his brother to withdraw the offer to make Johnson the vice presidential nominee in 1960. There were rumors that Johnson might be dropped from the ticket in 1964, as President Kennedy was campaigning in Florida and Texas the week before his assassination in November 1963.
Johnson, unfortunately, treated his vice president Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969) very poorly, demanding total loyalty and making him campaign on the escalation of the Vietnam War, a policy about which Humphrey had doubts. Humphrey was under constraint, and it undermined his presidential candidacy in 1968. But Humphrey did have a major role in promoting Johnson’s Great Society programs. Humphrey later advised his fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale to get a guarantee of having direct engagement if he was to be Jimmy Carter’s vice president, based on his own sad experiences under Johnson. Mondale was fortunate that his impact on Jimmy Carter was massive, and that he was close to being a “co-president.”
Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s first vice president (1969-1973), found that Nixon did not wish him to be deeply engaged in policy, and was often irritated by Agnew’s independent nature and outspokenness. While Nixon had Agnew do his dirty work and go after the news media and liberal politicians, the president felt that Agnew was becoming too popular with conservatives, and considered dropping him from the ticket in 1972 and replacing him with John Connally. Ultimately, Agnew stayed on the ticket, but with the growing Watergate Scandal and the revelation Agnew had taken cash bribes as governor of Maryland and even as vice president, Nixon allowed Agnew to “swing in the wind,” refusing to back him when the first hints of the Agnew troubles emerged. Agnew resigned under fire in October 1973. The two men never spoke again; when Nixon once called Agnew, Agnew’s wife informed Nixon that her husband did not wish to speak with him, having felt that he had done Nixon’s dirty deeds, and then been totally abandoned.
Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s appointed vice president (1974-1977), had an unhappy time in that office. Ford had promised him a significant role in the administration, but allowed Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld to undermine the influence of the more liberal Rockefeller, whose three presidential campaigns had alienated much of the base of the party in the runup to the 1976 election. When Ford was twice threatened by women assassins in September 1975, it caused horror among conservative supporters of Ronald Reagan that Rockefeller might have become president. By the end of 1975, as Ford faced Reagan’s challenge from the right, Rockefeller took himself out of the running. Ford accepted Senator Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate to please the Reagan wing of the party at the Republican National Convention in 1976. But later, after losing to Jimmy Carter, Ford expressed the belief that he had made a mistake in not insisting that Rockefeller run for the full term.
George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s vice president (1981-1989), was careful not to antagonize White House staff, keeping a low profile and avoiding any criticism of the administration. His experience in foreign policy was a strength, and he won support by staying in the background when Reagan was shot in March 1981, rather than asserting himself. Bush played a significant role as a two-term vice president, but interestingly, he and his wife were never invited for a private dinner at the White House with the Reagans over the eight years they shared the leadership of the nation. It seems that Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush did not get along well personally, and the fact that Bush had contended for the nomination with Reagan in 1980, and had been highly critical of Reagan in the primaries, apparently had an impact.
Dan Quayle served as George H. W. Bush’s vice president (1989-1993), but gained a reputation for multiple gaffes, and was often an embarrassment in debates and public statements. When Bush had a health crisis, it caused many to worry about the effect on the stock market, at the thought of the possibility of Quayle becoming president. There was consideration of dropping Quayle in 1992, but Quayle stayed on the ticket, and one can never know if that hurt Bush’s campaign for a second term in a three-way contest with Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.
Al Gore served as Bill Clinton’s vice president (1993-2001), and had a major impact on Clinton on environmental issues, and on the development of the internet as an “information superhighway.” But he had to contend with the influence of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was often seen as a barrier. When Clinton became engaged in the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals, and faced investigation and impeachment proceedings, it put Gore on the spot, trying to keep a balance between loyalty to the president, and the need to separate himself from Clinton. This convinced Gore to avoid using Clinton during his 2000 presidential campaign; many believe this hurt Gore in his very close election contest with George W. Bush. It became known that after his defeat, Gore and Clinton had a major confrontation in the Oval Office, each blaming the other for the loss. Their relationship after the presidential years took a period of time to be restored.
Dick Cheney served as George W. Bush’s vice president (2001-2009). With his experience as a former Congressional leader and Secretary of Defense under Bush’s father in the early 1990s, he was perceived as more knowledgeable and more aware of details than Bush was. Many believe that the younger Bush’s terrorism and war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan were constructed by Cheney, with the assistance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The vice president became regarded as the most powerful and assertive vice president in modern memory. In the second term, however, Bush asserted himself to a greater extent, and Cheney’s influence and desires were often pushed to the sideline. So while they remained a team, the influence and assertiveness of Cheney dwindled over time.
And finally, Mike Pence (2017-2021) was extremely obsequious and sycophantic with Donald Trump, although it was known that Karen Pence, the Second Lady, had problems and issues with Trump. So the fact that it took Pence a full year before he finally spoke up against Trump’s role in stoking the January 6, 2021 insurrection, which credibly threatened Pence’s own life and that of his family, is startling to many. With Trump’s enduring popularity with the Republican base, Pence’s own presidential prospects seem dim. But at least, Pence finally showed some principle regarding the horrific events of January 6.
Pence is only the most recent of 19 vice presidents who have had serious disagreements or difficult relationships with the president they served with; whether POTUS and VP get along has historically been close to a coin toss.
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