Commentary: Presidential transitions - part 2 of 3

By JAMES CHAPIN, UPI Political Analyst

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25 -- While the transitions from presidents of one party to one elected from the same party have generally been smooth, the pattern for vice presidents has been quite different. In general, 19th century vice presidents did badly, while 20th century vice presidents had a much easier time.

And yet most vice presidents in both centuries were selected for "ticket-balancing," and therefore had quite different politics from the men they replaced. And most of them had little to do with exercising the power of the presidency until its responsibilities were suddenly thrust upon them.


What, then, accounts for the differences?

The first such transition happened in 1841. The Whig victory of 1840 did not last long. Their victorious candidate William Henry Harrison ("Tippiecanoe"), the oldest man ever elected to a first term, delivered the longest inaugural in American history in the freezing rain and died of pneumonia a month later to be succeeded by John Tyler ("Tyler too"), a state's rights Democrat.


Tyler demanded that he be called president, not "acting president," and his view of the office prevailed.

Tyler vetoed the legislation of the Whig Congressional majorities, and his entire Cabinet resigned. He spent the rest of his presidency trying to win the Democratic nomination for 1844, recruiting John C. Calhoun as secretary of state, and doing his best to annex Texas.

During the lame-duck session after the election of James K. Polk as his successor, Tyler accepted the treaty to annex Texas on the basis of a probably unconstitutional joint resolution of Congress instead of the two-thirds vote required by the Constitution to approve treaties. And that same lame duck Congress also, designated the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the uniform Election Day for presidential elections.

The chaos of Tyler's presidency was duplicated by the next two presidents who came to office by reason of the death of the elected occupant -- Millard Fillmore and Andrew Johnson. Zachary Taylor's opposition to the Compromise of 1850 was reversed by his successor when he took power on July 9, 1850. As a result, patronage appointments for the entire term from 1849 through 1853 were in flux. Fillmore ended up by running as the "Know-Nothing" candidate for president in 1856, carrying the single state of Maryland.


As for Johnson, he was a "State's Rights" Southern Democrat who shared nothing with Lincoln except his poverty-stricken background and his opposition to secession. Within a year of his accession to the presidency, he found himself in total opposition to the Republican majorities in Congress, and, after trying to defeat them in the 1866 election and failing, found the entire program of Reconstruction passed over his vetoes, himself impeached, and saved from conviction by a single vote.

Chester Arthur, the "star" of the Stalwart Republicans, was in an equally unfortunate position when he became president in 1881. His predecessor, James Garfield, had been murdered by a man who shouted "Now a Stalwart will be president!" Garfield's whole Cabinet left office with his death. Of necessity, Arthur had to rule against his inclinations, as something of a reformer, and the first civil service law of the United States, the Pendleton Act, was passed under his administration.

The record of 20th century vice-presidents was much better. William McKinley was shot in Buffalo on September 6, 1901, and died 8 days later. Teddy Roosevelt kept the core of McKinley's Cabinet, but soon struck off in a new direction, and made everyone in America forget that McKinley ever existed.


Warren G. Harding's death in San Francisco in 1923 was equally unexpected, but Calvin Coolidge, like TR, kept the core of his predecessor's Cabinet while purging the corrupt members and getting re-elected easily.

Harry S. Truman didn't even know that the atomic bomb existed when he assumed the presidency in 1945, and he did replace FDR's Cabinet with his own choices. His first year in office did not go well, and his party was crushed in the 1946 mid-term elections, but, after that, Truman recovered well enough to get re-elected in 1948.

John Kennedy's assassination in LBJ's home state of Texas kept lots of later conspiracy theorists busy, but Johnson followed the successful course of TR and Coolidge, keeping the core of his predecessor's Cabinet while carving out an independent version of Kennedy's path. He was re-elected easily, but, like Truman, got into an unsuccessful Asian war during his second term.

As for Richard Nixon, his resignation from office left him succeeded by the man he himself had picked, Gerald Ford. Ford's accession to the presidency was widely hailed, but his pardon of Nixon thrust his presidency into trouble, and despite a strong recovery, Ford was defeated when he ran for re-election.


In the case of vice-presidential successions, it is obvious that there has been a huge change from one century to the next. It's partly due to the fact that modern parties are more ideologically coherent than their earlier predecessors, and it's partly due to the fact that modern communications make it possible for vice presidents who are suddenly thrust into power to become far better known than they used to be.

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