Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, in addition to being a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As Joe Biden approaches his selection of a Democratic running mate, insiders have been telling reporters that his team is asking three questions of the remaining female candidates:
- Will this nominee be good at the job?
- Will she get along well with Biden?
- Will she be an asset or a liability in the campaign?
These are all important questions that have been asked in past campaigns. For Biden especially, it is important that his running mate do no harm to the ticket. He has the momentum now and wants to maintain it into the fall.
Additionally, as Elaine Kamarck points out in her new book, “How Picking the Vice President has Changed – and Why It Matters,” vice presidents have also become increasingly important as working partners for presidents, so getting along with Biden is important, too.
But the Biden campaign should be paying the most attention to this question: If history calls, will his vice president have the capacity and talent to become a first-class president?
The whole reason why the framers created the vice presidency was to have a person of high-quality waiting in the wings. In our first federal elections, the candidate who received the most electoral votes would become the president, while the person awarded the second most assumed the vice presidency. Thus, the electors chose John Adams as an understudy to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as vice president to Adams. Notably, Washington, Adams and Jefferson were all men of stature who had the chops to be fine presidents.
Since closing days of World War II, we have had 15 vice presidents. No less than five of them have risen to the top after serving as vice presidents – Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. So, if history is any indication, there is a one-in-three chance that if Biden wins in November, his vice president could one day be president. What is more, Biden would be the oldest person to be elected president if he wins in November. For the sake of the country, aren’t these compelling reasons why he should now select the best possible successor?
Among the five who rose from the vice presidency to the Oval Office, their strength, effectiveness and moral leadership – or lack thereof – played a critical role in their contributions to the country in the years that followed.
Consider each of the five:
Harry Truman: Despite widespread doubts when Franklin Roosevelt selected him as his running mate in 1944, Truman turned out to be an inspired choice, one of the best presidents of the 20th century. Surrounding himself with “wise men,” he brought World War II to a successful conclusion, won congressional approval of the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe after the war, and worked to create NATO and other international institutions. Truman was self-educated, plain spoken and had midwestern values. He is a classic example of why the selection of a strong running mate is one of a president’s single most important decisions.
Lyndon B. Johnson: John F. Kennedy’s choice of Johnson as his vice president was controversial within the party ,and Johnson’s mistakes over Vietnam continue to fester. But he is finally getting the praise he deserves for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, two of the most important advances toward racial equity in the history of the country. While many conservatives opposed them, his Great Society programs are now widely seen as helping to alleviate poverty, mitigating systemic inequities and protecting the environment.
Richard Nixon: Nixon’s selection as vice president in 1952 was the exception that proved the rule: better to go for a running mate who has a record of acting with honor and dignity – not the individual who has mastered the low arts of politics. When Nixon was seeking the brass ring on his own in 1960, a reporter asked Dwight Eisenhower what contributions Nixon had made in eight years as vice president. Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” When Nixon eventually reached the Oval Office years later, his presidency was marked by the Watergate scandal and loss of trust among the American people.
Gerald Ford: When Nixon’s own vice president – Spiro Agnew – resigned in disgrace after the Justice Department unveiled evidence of his corruption, Nixon was persuaded by Democratic leaders to name Ford as his replacement. Among all the GOP possibilities, the Democrats trusted Ford the most, having worked with him for over two decades in Congress. The Democrats judged well: Ford’s character and integrity began the process of healing a torn country. As Ford said in his inaugural address, “our long national nightmare is over … Our Constitution works.”
George H.W. Bush: After a bruising campaign, Ronald Reagan asked his opponent, Bush, to join his ticket in 1980. While Reagan was more conservative, they formed close working bonds. When Bush finally reached the Oval Office eight years later, he was one of the best prepared presidential candidates in recent times. From his dealings with the former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to his work on the reintegration of Germany, Bush proved his diplomatic aptitude time and again. This time it was Reagan who chose well.
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The record is thus clear: Yes, it’s good for a presidential candidate to choose a running mate who will do no harm. Given the increasing demands and crises of our time, it’s important to have a working partner in the Oval Office. And it’s helpful, too, to have a vice president with lots of friends on Capitol Hill.
But the most important question remains this: if history calls, who would make the best president for our poisonous, polarized times? Post-World War II history suggests that if a presidential contender looks for a potential president – a person with the character, experience and moral purpose needed in the Oval Office – the contender himself will not only be a better leader but he may one day leave the country a better legacy.