March 15, 1854—Thomas Marshall, a longtime lawyer who parlayed his amiability into one term as governor of Indiana and two as Vice-President of the United States under the very, very serious Woodrow Wilson, was born in North Manchester in his home state to a country doctor and his sickly wife.
While his upbringing, involving constant movement because of his mother’s ill health, was uncomfortable, it was nowhere near as difficult as the months he spent at the close of his second term as veep, when—underestimated by virtually everyone in the capital—he refused to take personal advantage of the worst crisis of Presidential disability in American history.
Whenever witticisms of America’s Vice-Presidents are compiled, Marshall seems to account for half of the best. He was fully the equal of the far better-known Robert Dole, and he spoke without the Kansan’s sarcasm or gag writers.
The quip for which Marshall is best known—“What America needs is a really good five-cent cigar”—is probably a misattribution. It is characteristic of the Hoosier that the ones he did coin—ones that, in my opinion, are far more humorous—were uttered at his own expense and hopeless political situation.
For years, I have felt, no quote about the Vice-Presidency better illustrated the emasculating aspect of the office better than this routine by Marshall: “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”
Unlike later Hoosier Dan Quayle (or, to be bipartisan, Joe Biden), Marshall was seldom the source of unintentional humor (though he was too good-natured not to enjoy a chuckle at his own expense). Like Quayle, he served a President who, by the end of his first term, was certain he had made a mistake in this selection—then, astonishingly, went on to repeat it.
This extraordinarily winning personality labored under two handicaps. First, Marshall had little appetite for power, or even particular faith in his own ability. Second, the latter belief was shared by his boss, who scorned him, shut him out of virtually all important administration deliberations—and refused to resign in his favor when a devastating stroke left Wilson unable to perform the duties of his office in any meaningful way any longer. There was, in that sense, something sad, even pathetic, about Marshall’s plight.
Marshall possessed few qualities that would have made Wilson value his work. Like the President a Washington outsider, he could tell him nothing about the ways of the capital. Nor could he even remotely hope to match the President in intelligence, eloquence or determination. Even the one quality Marshall had in abundance worked against him, because it created an image of an unserious person: "An unfriendly fairy godmother presented him with a keen sense of humor," Wilson’s confidante, Col. Edward House, commented. "Nothing is more fatal in politics."
House was, in fact, a prime mover behind an effort to drop Marshall from the ticket before the 1916 reelection campaign, urging the President to replace the veep with Secretary of War Newton Baker. Wilson had as little use for the office as he did for Marshall, but he doubted that he could realign the position’s responsibilities enough to make it attractive to the likes of his able Cabinet officer. Needing to take his wife to a wedding that night, he wasn’t inclined to consider House's proposal seriously. In any case, like Abraham Lincoln, he failed to consider the possibility that his vice-president might be called upon in an emergency to step into his shoes.
It might seem unbelievable to us that someone like Marshall—who stopped attending Cabinet meetings after awhile when he sensed his irrelevance in the eyes of the President—could have ended up as Vice President in the first place. But the last Vice-President with energy and some ability, Aaron Burr, also proved to have such a formidable power base of his own that he nearly swiped the Presidency from the head of his ticket, Thomas Jefferson, when the election of 1800 ended up being unexpectedly thrown into the House of Representatives. Since then, the office had gone mostly to party figures well past their prime—or, in the case of Marshall, represented a constituency that had to be placated.
At the Democratic convention of 1912, the only reason why Wilson did not lose the nomination was that the frontrunner, Speaker of the House Champ Clark, though holding a majority of delegates, did not possess the two-thirds needed according to the rules then in effect. It required a ferocious amount of behind-closed-doors horsetrading to secure the New Jersey governor and former Princeton president his party’s nod. Indiana would be a swing state in the fall, and the state’s political kingpin, Thomas Taggart, desiring to kick the not-always-pliable Marshall upstairs, threw the state delegation behind Wilson at a crucial point in the proceedings, helping to push him over the top.
The Washington establishment came to regard Marshall as provincial, just one more in a line of vice-presidential nonentities. When it came time to write their 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical satire of Presidential politics, Of Thee I Sing, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind created the ultimate caricature of a century of such lackluster holders of the Vice-Presidency: Alexander Throttlebottom, an innocuous but inept officeholder who has managed to leave so little impression that the party elders can’t even remember who he is.
Marshall shared enough aspects of this stereotype that Time Magazine several years ago labeled him one of America’s “Worst Vice Presidents.” Paradoxically, however, in the intentional fog and confusion created by Wilson’s wife Edith and physician Cary Grayson after his disabling stroke, Marshall turned out to be, in the words of the President’s biographer John Milton Cooper, the closest thing to “an unsung, unlikely hero” in the whole mess. (See my prior post on the elaborate concealment perpetrated by the First Lady and the President's doctor.)
Early on, Marshall had been apprised through an intermediary of the President’s dire condition. As the months dragged on with the President not being seen, he was approached several times—by his secretary, by a pair of Republicans, even, reportedly, by his own state’s two Democratic senators—to take over Presidency.
But the very quality that made so many in Washington despise Marshall—his diffidence—made him reluctant to seize control now. He would only agree to succeed the President at this point if Congress passed a resolution declaring the office vacant—and, more crucially, if Mrs. Wilson and Grayson committed to it in writing. The latter possibility was not forthcoming, and without it Marshall would not risk the chance of a civil war and certain constitutional crisis. (It would take another half-century, the deaths of three more Presidents in office, and heart trouble involving another before the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, stipulating the conditions for Presidential succession.)
Like those who preceded and followed him in the office, Marshall accomplished almost nothing as Vice President, with the one possible exception being a Cabinet meeting over which he presided in his second term—the first time in American history that a veep did so. But his tenure in office had led to one of the more interesting episodes of “alternate history”—i.e., the train of happenings that would have occurred if an initial event turned out differently.
In this case, the precipitating event would have been Wilson’s death from the stroke, rather than his survival in diminished condition and through ambiguity and sleight of hand. Wilson’s death while stumping for the League of Nations would have made the President a martyr, and would have given Marshall a strong hand in carrying out what would be, in effect, a memorial to the departed leader. It would have been similar to what Chester A. Arthur did in pushing through the Pendleton Act after James Garfield was assassinated by a disappointed office seeker, or as Lyndon Johnson did when he cajoled, wheedled, threatened, and pushed through stalled civil-rights legislation after John F. Kennedy’s murder.
Moreover, though Marshall lacked Wilson’s self-confidence, he also did not possess the President’s inflexibility. He had already signaled that he would compromise concerning at least some reservations that Senate Republicans had about the League. Thus, had Marshall stepped into the Oval Office, GOP leader Henry Cabot Lodge would never have been able to depict the President as obstructionist in his pursuit of his dream, and the United States would not have stood on the sidelines in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Europe fractured in the face of economic disruption and the rise of Fascism.
When he departed Washington at the end of his term, Marshall extended his sympathies to his successor, Calvin Coolidge. As usual, the veep was, comparatively, luckless—Harding’s death gave Coolidge the clear chance at the use of power that Marshall never enjoyed.
Nevertheless, it is hard to act condescendingly to a man with such a healthy disregard for his own perquisites or position. How can one not like a man, facing the unenviable occasional task of presiding over the Senate and its ego, who could pronounce that chamber “The Cave of Winds”? And how can one not like a man who, after leaving Washington, could speak so truthfully on what the office he had once occupied really amounted to: “I don’t want to work. I don’t propose to work. I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”