One was Theodore Roosevelt. Thrust into the job after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he became one of America's presidential greats. Another was Andrew Johnson, whose tenure went from bad (he was incoherent and probably drunk when he took the vice presidential oath) to worse (after succeeding Abraham Lincoln in 1865, he was impeached).
Despite this, Americans typically pay little attention to the No. 2 when voting for President. But these days, running mates do matter. Dick Cheney, and Al Gore before him, are probably the most consequential Vice Presidents in American history.
In the Democratic presidential race, there has been lots of talk about a "dream ticket" of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton together, but the big question is who gets the top spot on the ticket. On the Republican side, speculation mounts over who might be a suitable running mate for Senator John McCainnot an insignificant question, given McCain's age, 71, and his status as a cancer survivor.
"Running mates not only matter, but in this cycle they're going to have greater importance," says Scott Reed, who ran Senator Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
That might come as a surprise to the Founding Fathers. Beyond assigning the Vice President the responsibility of serving as the president of the Senate and breaking tie votes there, they didn't give the job much thought, says Stanley N. Katz, a constitutional historian at Princeton University.
'Most Insignificant Office'
For much of American history, the vice presidency has been more a target for jokes than a sought-after job. George Clinton, who became Thomas Jefferson's Vice President in 1805, called the job a "respectable retirement," after 18 years as Governor of New York. In 1848, Senator Daniel Webster turned down an offer to be Zachary Taylor's vice-presidential running mate, saying, "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead." And John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Vice President for his first two terms (1933-41), said the job wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit. (Actually, he used a cruder word than that.)
Many an early Vice President expressed frustration in the job. John Adams, the country's first Vice President, famously called it "the most insignificant office."
In the early days of the United States, the Vice President was not a running mate, but a rival: The Constitution made the Vice President the candidate who finished second in the presidential election. This meant the President and Vice President would very likely be opponents, as was the case after the election to succeed George Washington in 1796, when Thomas Jefferson became Vice President after losing the presidency to John Adams. The system in use todaythe joint election of the President and Vice Presidenttook effect in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment.
Even after that change, few Presidents shared significant power with their Vice Presidents, who were often relegated to ceremonial duties. (The joke has long been that a Vice President's main job is to attend state funerals overseas.) With limited responsibilities, it is perhaps no wonder that few Vice Presidents have distinguished themselvesand why they may be the most forgotten of all American politicians.
Gore & Cheney
In recent years, however, the office has gained more importance and respect. Vice President Al Gore, who served under Bill Clinton, was involved in White House decision-making to an unprecedented degree. Vice President Cheney is a close confidant of President Bush and one of his most senior advisers. Cheney has, by all accounts, been very influential in both domestic and foreign affairs.
It was not until 1977, when Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale took office, that the vice presidency gained any real clout. For starters, Mondale and Carter moved the office of the Vice President from the Senate to the White House.
"I learned an awful lot as Vice President that I didn't know as a Senator," Mondale says. While he felt "sort of ready" to be President when he became Vice President, Mondale says, he was definitely ready after four years as Vice President. (The voters decided otherwise in 1984, re-electing Ronald Reagan in a landslide instead.)
The question of readiness has been a major thread running through the Clinton-Obama race. Clinton has argued that Obama is not ready to be Commander in Chief, but she also hinted that he would make a good Vice President. Obama says her position is a contradiction: If he's ready to be Vice President, a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, then he must also be ready to be President.
Vice-presidential running mates are often chosen to balance a ticket in terms of experience, religion, geography, or to help win a key state. But voters don't seem to care about the No. 2 slot. Only 1 percent of voters say the vice-presidential candidate influences their decision in a presidential race, says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. Regardless, the media will likely spend the next few months focused on who the likely vice-presidential candidates are.
"This is not something that voters linger on, except in extreme cases," Kohut says.
This year, though, voters may linger longer than usual. After nearly eight years of Vice President Cheney, voters may now be more aware of just how influential a Vice President can be.
And while the vice presidency may be a stepping stone to the Oval Office, Cheney has no aspiration to be Presidentevidence enough that the office can matter in and of itself.