To Lose the Presidency

A handful of Americans who came this close to leading the country

White House

Since America’s founding in the late eighteenth century, forty-three men have held the office of president (Barack Obama is number forty-four, but Grover Cleveland, with his divided terms, gets counted twice), but not all of them arrived by election. Through the death, assassination, or resignation of their direct reports, nine vice presidents have passed Go to become the Chief Executive.

When John Tyler, “His Accidency,” took over the job after the 1841 death of William Henry Harrison—just one month into Harrison’s term—it wasn’t clear that the vice president deserved the promotion. Article II of the US Constitution always identified the Veep as being the natural successor when a president meets an early demise. But whether this new role was as a full president, or only as “acting president,” wasn’t fully decided until passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967.

As lucky as it was for those nine men to stumble into the Oval Office without help from the Electoral College, it was equally unlucky for four others who missed out on that same opportunity. The first such missed opportunity occurred when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865. Lincoln had taken the oath of office for his second time just six weeks earlier, along with his running mate Andrew Johnson. But Johnson was a new addition to the ticket. During Lincoln’s first time through the White House, Hannibal Hamlin served as vice president. A former congressman and governor from Maine, Hamlin considered the vice president’s office a “nullity,” an apt sentiment for his ouster from the 1964 Republican ticket by party leaders over the objection of Lincoln. Not one to wallow in the self-pity of missed chances, Hamlin returned to the US Senate for two more terms.

Another close loss of the presidency occurred for Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president during his third term. (John Nance Garner, FDR’s VP during his first eight years in office, also missed the chance, but not due to the president’s immediate death.) As with Hamlin, Wallace was kicked off the ticket by (Democratic) party leaders, although Roosevelt might have made the decision anyway after several conflicts with his vice president. A Roosevelt-Wallace ticket was no longer a guarantee for electoral victory, and a switch to the folksy Harry S. Truman brought a stronger ticket, but a downgrade for America’s only third-term vice president.

Garret Hobart served as William McKinley’s first vice president from 1897 to 1901. But when anarchists killed President McKinley halfway through his second term, the death carried VP Number 2, Theodore Roosevelt, into presidential prominence. Still, Hobart didn’t really miss out on becoming president since he himself had died while serving as vice president. In the year-and-a-half between Hobart’s death and TR’s inauguration as vice president, that office remained dormant and unfilled.

The last missed chance occurred not with death, but with the resignation of the thirty-seventh president, Richard Nixon. Spiro Agnew, America’s first Greek American vice president, resigned the office after being hounded by charges of bribery and tax evasion. Nixon elevated Gerald Ford, then the House Minority Leader, to the VP’s office just ten months before his own Watergate-related resignation. Ford remains the only president never elected for that office or the vice presidency.

This list of four near-misses could be expanded by including Thomas Marshall, vice president under Woodrow Wilson. Although Wilson finished out all eight of his elected years, he suffered a severe stroke more than halfway through his second term, leaving him incapacitated and, in the opinion of some, unfit for office. His wife took over some of his duties, earning her the title “the first female President of the United States.” If Wilson was truly unable to perform his duties, the job should have fallen to Marshall.

Other vice-presidents might have risen to the presidency had various illnesses or assassination attempts succeeded in removing the sitting president. Andrew Jackson survived a point-blank assassination attempt in 1833, an event that, had it succeeded, might have moved Martin Van Buren into office a full four years earlier than the date listed in history books. But in such cases, “unlucky” is a harsh word to stamp on the vice president.

How different would America have been had any of these lost chances assumed the presidency? It’s hard to say. Had Garret Hobart completed his own time in office, there might never have been a President Theodore Roosevelt. If the politically aggressive Agnew had still been VP under Nixon instead of the mild-mannered Ford, the post-Watergate trial and pardon might have played out differently. The Oval Office has been filled by an intriguing array of charismatic men through all of America’s history. But in these four or five cases, it was nearly taken over by others who were equally intriguing, but somewhat unlucky.

[Image Credits: Official White House photo]


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