- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

In weighing his political ambitions within the Obama White House, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would be well advised to visit “Presidents in Waiting” at the National Portrait Gallery.

This fascinating exhibition reveals how the number two spot has served as a springboard to the top job through fate and ambition. It traces the evolution of the vice presidency from a minor position of little official responsibility to a major influence over presidential policy.

While many in the office have spent their time scheming for the top job, only 14 of our 47 vice presidents have gone on to become presidents. The exhibit pays homage to the personalities and accomplishments of these men through a diverse, but uneven mix of portraiture, photos, cartoons and historical documents.

From John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, these select vice presidents rose to the presidency through death, resignation and hard-won election to the post.

On one partition in the exhibit, “The Last Hours of Lincoln,” an 1860s oil study for a bigger painting, shows Andrew Johnson awaiting his fate at the slain president’s bedside. On the opposite side, Lyndon Johnson is photographed on Air Force One taking the oath of office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Ford, who replaced disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew, is pictured watching the helicopter liftoff of president (and once vice president) Richard M. Nixon after he gave up the nation’s highest office.


Obama’s portrait now in National Portrait Gallery

Succession to the presidency, the exhibit reveals, has been a bumpy road.

In fact, the death or disability of the president didn’t always mean the vice president would permanently take his place. When William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in 1841, his vice president, John Tyler, asserted title to becoming the new president rather than the acting executive, despite opposition to his claim.

Tyler, whose stiff portrait recalls earlier paintings of George Washington, was eventually sworn in with full powers of the office. He set the precedent for succession that would become explicit in the 25th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967.

Much maligned and misunderstood, the vice presidency is shown to be a highly prominent perch from which to launch presidential bids. Stints as second in command helped little known politicians such as Calvin Coolidge gain visibility and be elected to a full term as president after occupying the office through succession.

Still, the harshest criticism for the number two position often came from those who occupied it. John Adams, the first to hold the job, dismissed the vice presidency as “the most insignificant office” ever invented. His feeling is understandable, given he ran for president and lost to Washington.

Under the original terms of the Constitution, the presidential candidate who received the second highest number of votes became the vice president. This procedure did not foresee the development of political parties and candidates with opposing views serving side by side.

The law was changed in 1804, when the 12th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, allowing electors to cast separate votes for the president and vice president. That led to our current system of presidential and vice-presidential candidates running together on the same ticket, an arrangement particularly advantageous for an ambitious veep with designs on the top job.

“Don’t give up the ship General or I shall not succeed you,” Vice President Martin Van Buren is shown saying as he clings to President Andrew Jackson’s coattails in an 1834 cartoon. Artist Henry Inman’s cocky likeness of Van Buren, the most skillful portrait in the exhibit, captures the shrewdness of the politician who was elected president in 1836.

Not all vice-presidential candidates were sure where the second highest office would lead them. “It is not a stepping stone to anything except oblivion,” Theodore Roosevelt said of the job.

The vice presidency didn’t tame the firebrand Rough Rider, who is sketched in his uniform by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the inventor of the Gibson girl and Gibson martini. When William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt became president and went on to be elected for a full term.

Other vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency weren’t as successful in their election bids. Represented by a daguerreotype portrait, Millard Fillmore became president in 1850 after Zachary Taylor died. He sought his Whig party’s nomination for president two years later but lost.

Chester Arthur, who became president in 1881 when James Garfield was shot, also didn’t get nominated as a candidate even though his civil service reforms were praised. In the exhibit, Arthur is portrayed with his signature sideburns in an early photograph of the era.

Modern photography takes over in the last gallery in portraits of the five post-World War II vice presidents who became presidents. Among several famous images by news photographer George Tames is a 1944 picture of Vice President Harry S. Truman and President Franklin Roosevelt at the breakfast table. In a photo taken a year later, Truman is president and attending Roosevelt’s funeral.

One of the few paintings in this section, created by artist James Chapin for a cover of Time magazine, depicts a shadowy Mr. Nixon alongside President Eisenhower. As vice president, Mr. Nixon presided over Cabinet meetings in Mr. Eisenhower’s absence and temporarily took control of the executive branch when the president suffered a heart attack and a stroke.

This expanded role continued to grow under successive presidents, as briefly recalled by vice presidents Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney on a video in the gallery.

Unfortunately, old-fashioned portraiture is used only sparingly in the exhibit to represent the vice presidents, but it doesn’t always reflect how they looked while in office. Mather Brown’s oil painting of John Adams was finished in 1788, while the future vice president was serving as a diplomat. Charles Willson Peale’s painting of Thomas Jefferson was completed when Jefferson was secretary of state during Washington’s administration.

Part of the reason why there aren’t more accurate portraits is that the National Portrait Gallery collects and commissions likenesses of presidents but not vice presidents. In celebrating the historical significance of the number two executive, this show makes a strong case for acquiring both.

WHAT: “Presidents in Waiting”

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Jan. 3, 2010


PHONE: 202/633-8300

WEB SITE: www.npg.si.edu

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