Jeffrey Frank’s essay in The New Yorker lays it out clearly.
The office of vice president of the United States is the second-most important office in the country, if not the world. It took the death of a president to make that fact abundantly clear.
Frank writes about Franklin Roosevelt’s death 70 years ago, on April 12, 1945. Vice President Harry Truman was told of FDR’s death in Georgia. He was rushed to the White House and sworn in as president.
It’s what President Truman didn’t know at the time that has been the subject of discussion ever since.
He didn’t know about the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, which then ended World War II in August 1945.
Truman only that there was something afoot in New Mexico. Secretary of War Henry Stimson told the president he had something to tell him involving a top-secret project. He informed him of the bomb and said, in effect, that if we use this device it could end the war in a hurry.
The gist of Frank’s essay is that the vice presidency was fundamentally changed after FDR’s death. Presidents have had to rely on their No. 2 men, required to keep them briefed on everything of importance that goes in the government. Why? Well, as we’ve learned, presidents can leave office quickly and without warning.
President Kennedy was murdered in November 1963. President Nixon resigned in August 1974. Both men had selected steady and seasoned men as their vice presidents who could take over at a moment’s notice. Lyndon Johnson did so while the nation grieved JFK’s death and Gerald Ford took the oath after Nixon’s resignation and reassured us that “Our long, national nightmare is over. The Constitution works.”
Presidential nominees have picked well since FDR’s time. Some have chosen not so well, as Frank notes.
But the notion that vice presidency — in the (sanitized) words of Texan John Nance Garner — “isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit” was laid to rest forever when Harry Truman was handed the keys to the Oval Office.
We’ll be sure to keep this in mind when the next nominees for president pick their VPs.