With one vice-presidential candidate who is controversial and another one who should be, this year’s election provides plenty of fodder for discussion in all four ticket slots. That has not always been the case; running mates are normally chosen for their inoffensiveness, and naming the vice-presidential candidates from a past election is like trying to remember the punter on a Super Bowl team.
Still, over the last two centuries, a number of vice-presidential nominees have had the potential to embarrass their running mates. The most famous example is Sen. Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern’s original running mate in 1972. He was replaced with Sargent Shriver after Eagleton’s history of shock treatment for depression was revealed. One credible version of this story is that McGovern’s people had heard rumors about Eagleton’s medical record, but for reasons of delicacy, they didn’t want to confront him directly. So his interviewer asked, “Is there anything in your background that we ought to know about?” and looked at him intently. Eagleton, thinking that the treatments were unimportant, said no, which McGovern’s people incorrectly took to mean that the rumors were false.
Other problem running mates:
1816: Daniel Tompkins. If there had been a serious two-party race, New York’s Governor Tompkins, James Monroe’s running mate, might have taken some heat for his intemperance; in the words of one historian, “While it was a time of hard drinking, the people demanded at least the outward appearance of sobriety in their public servants.” Fortunately for him, the Democrat-Republicans face only token opposition in 1816, and none at all in 1820 (though a handful of electors refused to vote for Tompkins in the Electoral College). Tompkins spent much of his eight years as vice president in an alcoholic stupor and died at age 53 a few months after his term ended.
1836: Richard Johnson. For many years, Martin Van Buren’s running mate had lived openly in Kentucky with a woman he was not married to. They had two children. The woman was black, a former slave of Johnson’s family, so it would have been illegal for them to marry. After her death in 1833, Johnson took up with at least two other slave women, one of whom he sold after they had a quarrel. All this didn’t keep him from representing Kentucky for 20 years in the House and 10 years in the Senate. Cartoonists mocked his domestic situation in the impenetrable style of the day, and a few Southern electors balked at voting for him, so he ended up with exactly half the electoral votes for vice president and thus had to be officially chosen by the Senate. When Van Buren ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1840, opposition to Johnson was strong enough that his party did not officially designate a vice-presidential candidate.
1852: William King. Franklin Pierce’s running mate was the only vice president who never married. For 15 years during his career in Congress, he was the roommate, constant companion, and very close personal friend of James Buchanan, who later became the only president who never married. So there was plenty of talk about those two, though the precise nature of their friendship remains unclear. During the fall of 1852 King was sick with tuberculosis (candidates were not expected to campaign in person at that time), and after a futile trip to Cuba, meant to regain his health, he came home and died in April 1853 after 45 days in office.
1864: Andrew Johnson. Abraham Lincoln’s running mate was a populist who hated slaves and slave owners equally. As a Tennessean who had remained loyal to the Union, he was put on the ticket to attract moderate voters. He was also known for drinking and not being tremendously bright. Johnson was obviously loaded when he gave a stammering, rambling address at his inauguration, and after Lincoln was shot, he did not handle the president’s job well at all — though in 1867 he did hurry through the purchase of Alaska, which the British also wanted. If he hadn’t, Sarah Palin would be Canadian.
1868: Schuyler Colfax. A decade and a half before he became U. S. Grant’s running mate, Colfax had belonged to the anti-Catholic American Party, also called the “Know-Nothings.” This cost the ticket some Catholic support, but General Grant was not going to be defeated three years after the Civil War. After being accused of having accepted bribes while Speaker of the House, Colfax was not invited back for Grant’s second term. His replacement as vice president, Henry Wilson, also turned out to have been a Know-Nothing (as had Grant himself, very briefly, though this did not come out until later).
1940: Henry Wallace. Wallace served as agriculture secretary in Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms and became his running mate for the third. FDR didn’t know that in the mid-1930s, Wallace had sent a series of fawning letters to Nicholas Roerich, a shady Russian mystic who showed believers how to communicate with the spiritual sphere. Wallace’s letters were full of mush like, “Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from the other world which is the real world.” A Republican operative got hold of the letters and sent them to GOP leaders, but they decided not to publish them because of their inherent decency and distaste for peddling scandal. (Ha! Had you going, didn’t I? The real reason was that Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate, was having an affair, and every journalist knew about it; he even held a press conference in his mistress’s apartment. If the Republicans had revealed the “guru letters,” the Democrats would have made a fuss over Willkie’s infidelity. Reporters kept a lot of stuff secret in those days. Harry Truman replaced Wallace in the 1944 election, and a good thing too, in view of the pro-Soviet views that Wallace propounded as a third-party presidential candidate in 1948.)
1952: Richard Nixon. The “slush fund” scandal that broke in mid-September nearly got him replaced as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, but it was bogus all the way. Sen. Nixon did maintain a fund to defray political expenses, but detailed records of receipts and expenditures had been kept, and there was nothing illegal about it. One Democratic politician estimated that at least 100 congressmen had similar funds. Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, in which he defended himself ably and saved his spot on the ticket, earned him a reputation as a battler and a stand-up guy, though Democrats have portrayed it ever since as a cheesy cover-up.
1984: Geraldine Ferraro. In 1984 her husband, John Zaccaro, a real-estate developer, was accused of financial hanky-panky. She explained that he’d made an accounting error and had paid his back taxes, and that in any case she knew nothing about the whole mess. That seemed to satisfy everyone, though she and Walter Mondale could make little headway in the Republican landslide of 1984. Shortly after the election, Zaccaro pled guilty to financial fraud; the following year he was indicted on unrelated charges, of which he was ultimately acquitted. Their son also went to prison for selling cocaine.
– Fred Schwarz is an NR deputy managing editor.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting]