The modern vice president

Posted: April 13, 2013

By Rawn James Jr.

Today marks the 68th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. More significantly as a constitutional matter, on this day in 1945, Vice President Harry S Truman was sworn in as the 33d president of the United States.

During his first term, Truman became a monumental president. Among other actions, he ordered the first use of an atomic bomb and established the Truman Doctrine. Between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War, war consumed Truman's presidency, but oddly never has defined it. His legacy is multifaceted, encompassing a robust foreign policy, a relatively progressive civil-rights agenda, and unapologetic partisanship.

What is perhaps the most tangible and enduring aspect of Truman's presidency too often is overlooked: He helped create the vice presidency as we know it today. No major federal office has evolved more than the vice presidency in the last 68 years.

Sen. Truman of Missouri was the first person nominated for vice president by electors who did not expect the president, if reelected, to survive his term. Because of concerns about Roosevelt's health, Southern delegates attending the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago sought to replace Vice President Henry Wallace with a candidate who was apparently more friendly to their segregationist views. NAACP executive director Walter White recalled of the convention, "I have never seen such cold-blooded speculation as there was among Democrats, particularly those from the Deep South, as to how many years of a fourth term Roosevelt could last."

After he became president, Truman disappointed and even angered the very Southern Democrats who had championed his nomination. He became the first president to address the NAACP, established the President's Committee on Civil Rights, and, 65 years ago this July, issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces. Truman's actions surprised so many because as vice president he, like nearly all those who held the office before him, had done so little.

During the 82 days he was vice president, Truman met with Roosevelt only twice. FDR had not informed him of the Manhattan Project or kept him apprised of the West's growing concerns regarding the Soviet Union. Upon Roosevelt's death, a Washington Post editorial lamented "the great disparity between Mr. Truman's experience and the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him." Truman would be the last vice president to be left almost entirely ignorant of the major issues facing the administration he served.

Since then, presidents have sought to involve their vice presidents in the business of governing the nation. Once elected to his own full term, Truman worked to raise the profile and salary of the vice president, even though Alben Barkley had not been his first choice for the job. During the Eisenhower administration, Vice President Richard M. Nixon regularly chaired National Security Council meetings and traveled to meet personally with foreign leaders.

As famously unhappy as he was in the Kennedy administration, Vice President Lyndon Johnson regularly attended White House meetings. A few years later, Vice President Hubert Humphrey proved to be an indispensable lobbyist for President Johnson's historic legislative agenda. President Jimmy Carter consulted Vice President Walter Mondale on a wide array of issues.

George H.W. Bush combined hard work and modesty to became the first vice president in more than 150 years to be elected directly from that office to the presidency. After becoming president, Bush met with Vice President Dan Quayle nearly every weekday morning. The Clinton administration publicized the president and vice president's weekly lunch appointment, and no reasonable observer can doubt the influence wielded by Vice President Dick Cheney during his years in office.

It has been widely reported that Joe Biden agreed to serve as vice president on the condition that he would be the last person in the room when President Obama made major decisions. In the now-iconic photograph of Obama and his top advisers watching the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, Biden is next to the president - right where we expect him to be. Before Truman's presidency, it is unlikely that the vice president would even have learned of the raid prior to its successful conclusion.


Rawn James Jr. is the author of "The Double V: How Wars, Protest and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military." E-mail him at thedoublev@gmail.com.

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