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Vice president's role changes over the years

Cheney may be most influential VP, but will he be memorable?

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It is a moment that grips the nation: A president is dead, the vice president takes the oath of office.

Will he be up to the job?

Cheney
Dick Cheney may be the most influential vice president to ever take office  

That is the question that faced nine vice presidents who have become the chief executive through death or resignation.

It's a curious job, the vice presidency. Originally, it was a consolation prize. The job went to the presidential candidate with the second highest number of electoral votes. And vice presidents quickly learned what their true place would be.

For many, it would be in the long shadow of their president.

There have been more vice presidents -- 45 -- than presidents. Most of them are forgotten faces and names.

Who remembers Hanibal Hamlin, who was Abraham Lincoln's first term vice president, and Thomas Marshall, who served and suffered for eight years under President Woodrow Wilson?

Marshall described the vice president's office as "a monkey cage, except that the visitors do not offer me any peanuts."

And something of a political curse has hung over those anxious to move on to the top job. Only four times has a serving vice president, who ran for president, been elected: John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush.

So how important is a vice president?

For periods totalling more than 37 years, the nation didn't have one. That's because when a president died and the vice president took over, there was no provision for naming a successor.

It wasn't until 1967 that the Constitution was amended so that a president could, with the consent of Congress, pick his No. 2 when the position fell vacant. And it was not until 1977 that the vice president was provided with an official residence.

In recent years, presidents have shown greater willingness to allow their elected deputy to take on more responsibilities. But as Vice President Al Gore learned painfully, even that is not a ticket to the oval office.

And now it is Dick Cheney's turn. In running the Bush transition team, and screening cabinet and other high-level appointments, Cheney may be the most influential vice president to ever take office.

Still, he will be the vice president. And like his predecessors on January 20, he will not be the focus of our attention.

If obscurity is the fate of vice presidents, history has shown one advantage in it. Unlike presidents, no one has ever bothered to impeach or assassinate a vice president.


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Monday, January 8, 2001

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