by Paul F. Petrick, for the Sun Gazette
As birth month to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, February exhibited the least number of days and greatest number of great presidents. This correlation of presidential preeminence and birthdate makes one wonder what William Henry Harrison (born Feb. 9) might have achieved had his presidency not ended more abruptly than John Paul I’s pontificate.
Fortunately, no speculation is needed regarding the achievements of Washington and Lincoln, the two presidents almost universally recognized as the best of the bunch. And while the federal government only recognizes Washington’s birthday as a federal holiday, some states have merged separate observances of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays into a single generic Presidents’ Day.
Neither the federal government nor any state government sets aside a day to honor America’s 49 vice presidents. But if that were to change, the only suitable date for Vice Presidents’ Day would be Jan. 9, the birthday of Richard Nixon.
Best known for his tenure as America’s 37th president, Nixon’s earlier tenure as America’s 36th vice president was transformative.
Constitutionally, the vice president is given just three duties: assumption of the presidency upon the president’s death (or removal, resignation, or inability); presiding over the Senate; and breaking tie votes in the Senate, all of which are seldomly carried out.
Prior to Nixon, the vice presidency was a bit of a national joke, frequently the target of humorous putdowns by its occupants. Vice presidents were regularly ignored by presidents and unrecognized by the public. But Nixon’s vice presidency was the inflection point that ushered in a new era of consequence for the county’s second highest office.
Nixon elevated the profile of the vice presidency even before his election to that office. Shortly after the 1952 election campaign kicked off, Nixon masterfully rebutted false claims of financial impropriety during a televised speech to 60 million Americans, the largest radio-TV audience prior to the initial Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate in 1960.
The first politician to use the new medium of television to circumvent a hostile media filter, Nixon laid bare every detail of his personal finances in what became known as the “Checkers Speech” because Nixon identified a puppy his daughter named Checkers as the only gift his family received since he entered politics.
Nixon’s performance, which was likened to Frank Capra’s “Mister Smith Goes to Washington,” was a smash, eliciting an avalanche of positive feedback from the public demanding his retention as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Some scholars have rated Nixon’s self-written speech as one of that century’s best.
Having gone to unprecedented lengths to prevent his vice presidency from ending before it began, Nixon served his nation like no other vice president.
When Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, ileitis (intestinal inflammation) and a stroke during a two-year period from 1955-57, Nixon pulled off the seemingly impossible task of leading in the president’s absence while avoiding the appearance of a usurper.
His task was complicated by constitutional ambiguities regarding presidential incapacity that were later clarified by the ratification of the 25th Amendment. But Nixon rose to the challenge, presiding over more than 40 Cabinet and Nation Security Council meetings with aplomb.
Nixon also served his country with distinction overseas. Accompanied solely by a single Secret Service agent and an interpreter, Nixon bravely faced down a rock-throwing, communist-directed mob in Peru. Embarrassed by Nixon’s courage, the communists retaliated by attempting to assassinate Nixon several days later in Venezuela. Nixon later won plaudits for besting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during an impromptu series of debates while they toured model exhibitions of an American television studio, grocery store, and home accompanied by a gaggle of journalists in Moscow.
“The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit” is the G-rated version of what John Nance Garner, the 32nd vice president, thought of his office. But Garner’s estimation was more true prior to Nixon’s establishment of the modern vice presidency.
Without Nixon’s example, it is difficult to imagine Barack Obama assigning U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis China and Ukraine to Joe Biden, or Donald Trump placing the federal government’s response to the coronavirus in the hands of Mike Pence.
Congress declaring Jan. 9 to be “Vice Presidents’ Day” may be unthinkable, but would be a fitting salute to America’s nonpareil No. 2.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland.