“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” John Adams grumbled to wife Abigail during his tenure as the first vice president of the United States.
Some 140 years later, Vice President John Nance Garner echoed Adams’ sentiments when he said the post was “not worth a bucket of warm (spit).”
In the election of 1960, outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower caused a kerfuffle when a reporter asked him to name a significant contribution made to his eight-year administration by Vice President Richard Nixon. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” Eisenhower responded.
In 1900 the New York Republican Party sought to banish the troublesome reformer Gov. Teddy Roosevelt to the one office it thought would sap him of all power and significance — as William McKinley’s vice president.
To the shock of a nation, and the consternation of the powerful trusts busted by the hero of San Juan Hill, an assassin’s bullet resulted in Roosevelt becoming one of eight vice presidents who have assumed the presidency upon the death of the sitting commander in chief.
While destiny catapulted Teddy Roosevelt into the White House, the majority of past vice presidents – 32 of 46 – never became president, either through death, resignation or election in their own right. Instead, they served in the shadow of presidents then faded away as historical footnotes.
On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin bounded to the stage in Norfolk, Virginia, with such ebullience that he very effectively masked any misgivings he may have had about taking on the role of Mitt Romney’s running mate.
The selection is surely an honor for the seven-term congressman and it seems to have electrified the conservative base of the Republican Party. Plus, Ryan gets to hedge his bets, thanks to Wisconsin law allowing him to stand for re-election to his U.S. House seat even as he runs for vice president, potentially keeping his current job if President Obama wins another term.
In the event of a Romney loss, conventional wisdom seems to be that Ryan would automatically top the list of GOP presidential contenders in 2016. But the last vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket to come back to win the presidency was Franklin Roosevelt, defeated as the running mate for Democrat James Cox in 1920 before taking the White House in 1932.
If Romney does win, what would that mean for Ryan, who is known for being a more passionate policy wonk than glad-handing politician?
No longer at the forefront of the federal spending debate as chair of the House Budget Committee, would he be relegated to simply applauding over President Romney’s right shoulder at State of the Union addresses? Or would Ryan be to Romney’s economic plans what Dick Cheney was to George W. Bush’s foreign policy — a driving force within the administration?
The 2012 race looks like it will come down to the wire with the Romney-Ryan duo having a decent chance at victory. But given the sentiments of frustrated past vice presidents, for Paul Ryan a win in November could be as much a curse as a blessing.