As this year’s campaign moves toward the final stretch, the frenetic media-driven discussion about whether or not Sarah Palin is prepared for the presidency continues. Apparently, few have noticed that she is not actually running for that office. But how does she compare to others who have sought the nation’s number two job since World War II?
Once upon a time, the choice of a running mate was made in cloak-and-dagger secrecy - as little more than a political afterthought. Those who ran, and even those who eventually served as vice presidents, became for all practical purposes historical footnotes. Of course, the few who moved up to the highest office due to the death of a sitting president were notable exceptions.
Harry Truman was ill prepared to ascend to the presidency in April of 1945. This had little to do with whether or not he was up to the job. It was because his predecessor didn’t bother to give him the time of day. His selection was matter-of-fact and his interaction with President Franklin D. Roosevelt was – well – there really wasn’t any. Finding out about the secret Manhattan Project day or so into his presidency, Truman remarked: “I didn’t know.” There were many things he, in fact, didn’t know – and this was not really his fault. Fortunately for the nation, the man from Missouri was a quick study.
By 1952, a vice presidential candidacy was taken more seriously. Richard Nixon in many ways created the modern vice presidency. Though his relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower was not without its generational complications – including a measure of dysfunction – he was an energetic and effective team player who expanded the public’s perception of the vice presidency.
His conduct during Ike’s illnesses, and his global travel as the administration’s emissary, increased his stature, not to mention his political stock. Nixon’s transition to the Republican presidential nomination after eight years of playing second fiddle was virtually inevitable, late-minute machinations by his intra-party nemesis, Nelson Rockefeller, notwithstanding.
The 1960 presidential race has been analyzed and debated probably more than any other election in the past one hundred years. Even the protracted and polarized 2000 campaign fails to fascinate us as does what happened forty-eight years ago. Three men – all who would eventually become president – occupied center stage that year: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.