[50 years ago this week, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. That striking political moment was not only part of the deepening Watergate scandal, but one of the few times when an American Vice President has made major news. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Agnew and other noteworthy Veeps, leading up a weekend post on our current VP!]
On a key explanation for a Vice President’s unprecedented power grabs.
By an interesting coincidence, just before I began drafting this post, the prominent public historian Kevin M. Kruse Tweeted (in response to a controversy about Mike Pence), “For two and a half centuries, the vice presidency has been widely regarded as a fairly useless office—even by the ones who’ve held it themselves.” I’m not a vice presidential nor presidential historian (and neither is Kruse), so I’d always defer to those who have studied these figures, roles, and histories, with Lindsay Chervinsky’s The Cabinet (2020) a good starting point I’d say. But to my mind Kruse’s point is an accurate one—that the Vice Presidency, originally created in the Constitution/Framing as a bizarre first-loser situation when it came to presidential elections, has over the centuries morphed into a largely symbolic role, generally more relevant for elections (and what VP nominees can bring to the ticket) than for anything that the Vice President themselves will do while in office (other than those who have had to assume the presidency unexpectedly, of course, which as Tuesday’s post on Andrew Johnson reflects can be all too significant indeed).
There’s one recent and very notable exception to that trend, however: Richard “Dick” Cheney, who in his 8 years as George W. Bush’s Vice President wielded significantly more power than any other VP (and by many accounts, including one from Bush’s own father and one presented in the recent dramatic film Vice (2019), more than the President himself). To go with the general theme of the week’s posts, Cheney was also the subject of a particularly bizarre Vice Presidential scandal, when he shot a man in the face during a February 2006 quail hunting trip and then pretty much blamed the man (who seemed all too eager to take that blame) for the incident. But while that event is impressively symbolic of narratives of Cheney as a malevolent figure who consistently escaped any culpability for his actions (narratives with which I would entirely agree, to be clear), it’s important not to let it distract us from the far more significant story about Cheney: the way he grabbed far more power than any VP before or since, turning that largely symbolic office into a despotic one with destructive and tragic results (never more clearly than with the Iraq War).
That power grab was absolutely unprecedented (if not, as our most recent awful Oval Office resident might say, unpresidented), but it didn’t come out of nowhere, and I would argue that a key origin point for Cheney’s embrace of unconstitutional powers links him closely to one of yesterday’s subjects, the Nixon administration. There’s a famous photograph, included in this article, of a very young Cheney shaking hands with President Nixon in the Oval Office alongside Donald Rumsfeld (another powerful Bush administration figure and Iraq War instigator, natch). Nixon might not have been willing to grant his own VP much power, but he was most definitely a believer in the Imperial Presidency, and indeed as that hyperlinked article argues a hugely influential step along the way toward presidential administrations with secretive and dangerous levels of power. It was only a matter of time before the Imperial Presidency spawned (pun very much intended) an equally and dangerously Imperial Vice President like Dick Cheney.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Vice Presidents you’d highlight?