Saturday, October 12, 2013

The First Unelected Vice President

On this day 40 years ago, the vice presidency had been vacant for only a couple of days.

The former vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned, and there was much speculation about the identity of his replacement.

My family, as I have mentioned here before, was living in Nashville. My father was on a four–month sabbatical, and, on this day in 1973, we were roughly halfway through our time there. My parents decided that the family needed to get away for the weekend, and Oct. 12 in 1973 was on a Friday so, when my brother and I finished school for the day, my family loaded up our car and went somewhere that was about a two–hour drive from Nashville.

I don't remember where we went. It was some sort of rustic lodge–like compound on a body of water, probably a lake, and I seem to remember you could fish there, but, even though my father knew how to fish, I have no memory of him fishing that weekend.

That may have been because it rained most of that weekend. And my memory is that my mother and father and brother and I spent most of the weekend in that cabin watching TV when we weren't at the window watching the rain.

(We probably called that the "Goodloe luck," of which I have written before. It was our version of Murphy's law, I suppose; most of my memories of the "Goodloe luck" do seem to include rain spoiling camping trips and weekend getaways. So it was on that day in 1973.)

My most vivid memory is of that Friday night — 40 years ago tonight — when President Nixon came on TV to announce that he was nominating Gerald Ford to fill the vice presidential vacancy. And I remember the four of us watching him make that announcement.

It was an historic occasion, the first time the 25th Amendment, which clarified presidential succession, was invoked. It was also, as historian Theodore H. White wrote, "a ceremony marked by a tasteless cheerfulness." With so much suspicion and uncertainty swirling around him in October 1973, Nixon seemed oddly detached when he announced Ford's nomination. I honestly think that, on that day, he believed that he would serve the rest of his term, that he would beat the rap.

As I wrote here a couple of years ago, the language of Article II of the Constitution was ambiguous on the subject of presidential succession, saying that, in the event of a vacancy (either temporary or permanent) in the presidency, the vice president should "act as [p]resident ... until the [d]isability be removed, or a president shall be elected."

Presidential succession apparently wasn't a pressing concern for the Founding Fathers. It was first put to the test about half a century after the Constitution was written when President William Henry Harrison died and his vice president, John Tyler, interpreted the Constitution and determined that he should be the actual president, not an acting president, and he took the oath of office, setting a precedent that was followed for more than a century.

But in 1967 the 25th Amendment was ratified, establishing a clear line of succession. And one of its provisions was that, in the event of a vacancy in the vice presidency, the president had to nominate a successor whose name would be sent to Congress for its approval.

Agnew's resignation was the first opportunity for a president to nominate a vice president under the amendment. When Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the vice presidency was vacant for more than a year, but then it was filled by Hubert Humphrey, who was Johnson's running mate in the 1964 election — and, thus, the office was occupied when the 25th Amendment was adopted.

And, on that night, we watched as all three networks covered Nixon's announcement that he wanted Gerald Ford to be his new vice president.

Only one other time since that day — nearly a year later, when Ford had to choose his own successor following Nixon's resignation — has a president been called upon to nominate someone to fill a vice presidential vacancy.

As unpopular as Nixon was at that time, I really believe that few, if any, people who watched him introduce Ford as Agnew's successor realized they were looking at the man who would be president within a year.

Fewer still probably realized we would witness the nomination of another unelected vice president within a year — and then not see it happen again for at least four decades.

That is how history works sometimes, with similar events lumped together in one short period of time, then nothing like it again for decades. Kind of like horse racing's Triple Crown.

No comments: