When Running Mates Would Have Made A Difference — If Only Their Tickets Had Won

The 1940 Republican presidential nominee, Wendell Willkie (r) and his running mate, Senator Charles McNary. Neither man would survive the term they sought to occupy.

With the “veepstakes” now underway for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, history should serve as a guide (as much as it can) for the first election in history where both major nominees are in their seventies and the nation is gripped in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

There are a few times when the vice-presidential selection mattered more than others and an even longer list of vice presidents relegated to the ash heap of history. Of the eight presidents who died in office, four were by natural causes. Three of those cases (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Warren Harding) were random tragedies that could have afflicted any American at the time.

There were also times when history could have turned on the drop of a dime — we just didn’t know it. These were the times when the losing (and — an exception — one winning) candidate in the most recent election died before the term they sought to occupy would have ended. We will never know if the fate of these men would have been the same had they been in the White House, but in hindsight, it made their vice-presidential nominees even more consequential.

Stephen A. Douglas, 1861

Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861)

With the country already at a tipping point over slavery, Abraham Lincoln’s slight victory over Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed both sides over the edge and, not long after he took the oath of office in March, the Civil War began. Douglas, still in the Senate, served as an informal advisor to the new president. However, in June of 1861 — only three months into Lincoln’s term — Douglas developed Typhoid Fever and died at the age of 48. He was remembered by many — including Lincoln — as a statesman and a patriot.

While Lincoln’s election most likely pushed the country into war, a national conflict would have still taken place under a President Douglas. Imagine if Douglas died during his first summer in office and his vice president — former Georgia Governor Herschel Johnson (who became a senator of the Confederate States of America) — succeeded him. While one could guess what Douglas might have done in the face of war, his vice president would have easily allowed us to become two separate and distinct nations, thus changing the future of the country forever.

Horace Greeley, 1872

Horace Greeley (1811–1872)

Anyone who has walked through City Hall Park or Greeley Square in Manhattan has walked past statues of Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune. But most passersby are likely unaware that Greeley was the sole presidential nominee in history who died only weeks after the election — before any votes were ever cast in the Electoral College.

Despite his criticism of both Republican President Ulysses S. Grant and the Democratic Party, Greeley — a former one-term US Representative — was nominated by the nascent Liberal Republican party and the Democrats in order to unite the opposition against Grant for a second term. The campaign was nasty, and it took its toll. Greeley’s wife, Mary, died from tuberculosis just days before the election. Greeley lost handily, winning only six states to Grant’s thirty-one.

Greeley returned to the Tribune, but exhausted and consumed by grief over his wife, died on November 29, 1872, at the age of 61. When the Electoral College met in December, Greeley’s electors split their ballots, with a majority voting for former Senator Thomas Hendricks (also a future vice president). Greeley’s running mate, Missouri Governor Benjamin Brown, a former radical republican, only received a small share of the votes.

With the exception of the tragic death of Leo McGarry on “The West Wing” (preceded by the real-life death of the great actor John Spencer), the election of 1872 remains the only time when a candidate died during the electoral process, but it was not the last time when a candidate’s health became an after-the-fact consideration.

Wendell Willkie, 1940

Wendell Willkie (1892–1944)

Before Donald Trump was the Republican candidate in 2016, the last time a nominee had no experience in government or the military was in 1940, when Wendell Willkie — a prominent electric power industry lawyer — was nominated by the Republicans against Franklin Roosevelt, the first president to seek a consecutive third term.

After a cordial fall campaign, Willkie had a strong showing in some midwestern states but lost the popular vote and the electoral college overwhelmingly. Gracious in defeat, Willkie accepted an offer to serve as an informal representative to Great Britain. He and Roosevelt remained in contact for most of the next few years, with the president sounding out his former rival on a host of issues.

After a failed attempt to secure the GOP nomination in 1944, he returned to private practice. However, before the general election between Roosevelt and New York Governor Thomas Dewey took place, Willkie died of a heart attack on October 8, 1944. He was 52.

In an amazing twist of fate, Willkie’s running mate, US Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary, died of a brain tumor in February 1944. It is the only time when both running mates on a ticket did not live for the entire term they sought.

If Willkie and McNary had been elected in 1940 instead of Roosevelt and died before January of 1945, it would have been Willkie’s Secretary of State (unknown to all except, perhaps, Willkie) who would have assumed office until a new president took office.

Of course, Roosevelt won a fourth term along with his new vice president, Harry S. Truman, in 1944. But what Americans did not know at the time was that the lessons of Douglas, Greeley, and Willkie were about to come to pass.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) (Photo credit: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Early in 1944, just about the time Willkie and Dewey were fighting for the nomination, Roosevelt — who had been president longer than anyone — had a host of health issues (besides polio). Only 62 (but looking much older), the president — a lifelong smoker — was diagnosed with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure. Congressional and Democratic party leaders, though unaware of the true nature of his diagnosis, could sense FDR was not well.

Since it looked like the Allies would soon win the war in Europe, the Democratic establishment suggested replacing Vice President Henry Wallace — a likable but unpredictable former Secretary of Agriculture — with someone more palatable in case Roosevelt did not survive. A middle of the night, backroom deal eventually led the convention to settle on Truman, a two-term senator from Missouri.

Roosevelt and Truman easily beat Dewey and his running mate, Ohio Governor John Bricker. The president and his new vice president met only twice in the first quarter of 1945. Truman was not involved in the Yalta conference, nor did he know about the Manhattan Project.

Nevertheless, President Truman negotiated the surrender of Germany and Japan, set up the rehabilitation of Europe, integrated the US Army, and recognized the founding of Israel as the first Jewish state in the history of the world. (He also personally offered language in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, ensuring that his poker buddy, House Speaker Sam Rayburn — and not the senate president pro tempore — would be next in line in the absence of a VP.)

Imagine if foresight and good judgment had not prevailed in the summer of 1944 and Wallace or another contender, former South Carolina Senator James Byrnes — an ardent segregationist — became president on April 12, 1945. In hindsight, the Truman pick remains one of the most crucial in all of American politics.

We rarely know when such crucial junctures in history are upon us but if the last two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we as a nation — and our presidential candidates — should be prepared for anything.

Public Affairs/Communications Professional, Proud Dad of 3, Husband, History buff, Terp for life

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