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First-Rate Second-Rate Men?

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Raymond Scheele, Professor and Co-Director Emeritus
Ball State University

Heath Bowman’s book Hoosier tells a story about Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall in the early years of the 20th Century: The setting is around midnight on July 3, 1912:

A reporter approached Marshall’s house in the dark. He rang the bell-key and nobody answered. He rang again and began pounding on the glass part of the front door. Tom Marshall came down the stairs in his nightshirt. He was not angry, but bewildered by sleep. He opened the door and recognized the reporter: “Well, Henry?” he asked.

The reporter said, “Governor Marshall, word’s just come from the Baltimore convention. You’ve been nominated for vice-president!”

The governor yawned and replied: “Oh, Lord! Why couldn’t you have told me that tomorrow?”

“But we want a statement—it’s an honor—every Hoosier–”

“Seems to me it’s an old honor for the state, Henry. Three vice-presidents and I don’t know how many more who’ve tried…. Y’know, more first-rate second-rate men have come out of Indiana than any other–.”

Eight months later Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Marshall were inaugurated as President and Vice-President. Since Marshall’s eight years as Vice-President, three other Hoosiers have been nominated for the office: Charles Fairbanks, Dan Quayle and now, Mike Pence.

Marshall’s quip about second-raters is still quoted by some, reflecting that Indiana has provided more vice-presidential nominees than any other state except New York. Before Marshall, Republican Schuyler Colfax and Democrat Thomas Hendricks were nominees for the second spot. Colfax was elected in 1868 with Ulysses S. Grant and Hendricks was nominated in 1876 to run with Democrat Samuel Tilden. The Tilden/Hendricks ticket lost, but Hendricks was nominated again for Vice-President in 1884 and won the office with Democrat Grover Cleveland as President.

The reason for Hoosiers being nominated for vice-president after the Civil War and into the first two decades of the 20th Century was a simple political fact: Indiana was what is now called a “battleground state.” Along with New York, campaign managers in both parties were always seeking ways to win these two important states. Indiana had another attribute, as well: it was an “early state” in voting. Hoosiers went to the polls in October and the Indiana results were viewed as an early sign that other states would follow in November.

Marshall’s quote also reflects the view that the vice-president really does not have much to do. One old sarcastic quip is that the “Veep sits around waiting for the President to die.” John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice-president, said the office “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

The U.S. Constitution does not designate many vice-presidential duties. The person presides over the Senate but that duty does not necessarily entail active involvement in Senate business. If the Senators tie on a vote, the vice-president can cast the deciding vote. The vice-president becomes president upon the removal of the president from the office or upon his death, resignation or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the office. In the case of the president’s incapacity, the vice-president shall “act” as president until the disability is removed.

These limited duties have vastly expanded in recent years by actions of the presidents. President Jimmy Carter was the first president to provide an office in the White House for Vice-President Walter Mondale. All succeeding presidents have followed that precedent and have placed specific duties upon their vice-presidents. For example, President Obama recently placed Vice-President Biden in charge of the major national initiative to cure cancer.

Modern campaigns seldom make vice-presidential picks for purely political advantage. Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence certainly was not calculated to try winning Indiana for the Republicans. The Hoosier state is predominately Republican. Instead, Pence’s other attributes appear to have been the deciding factors.

Indiana gave its only President to the nation in 1888: Benjamin Harrison. Many other Hoosier politicians have sought the presidential nomination, but none have prevailed. Until that happens, we must continue to live with Thomas Marshall’s quote about “First-Rate Second-Rate Men.”