VP selections, then and now

9 mins read


I have no special insight into whom Joe Biden will pick as his running mate. The conventional wisdom seems to be that he likely will select Kamala Harris. I have no reason to disagree. But if Biden makes his selection based on comfort level and personal taste, he probably will reject Harris and perhaps pick Susan Rice.

Rice has serious flaws, but also one virtue that the other contenders on Biden’s artificially limited list lack. She has some sense that the world is a dangerous place.

Biden’s selection decision takes on particular importance because there is a much larger than normal chance that, if elected, he won’t last four years. If that chance is 50-50, and if his chance of defeating Trump is also 50-50, then there’s a 25 percent probability that Biden’s running mate will become president before 2025.

The last time the stakes were so high was in 1944. At that time, President Roosevelt’s prospects of lasting four more years were practically nil. In addition, his prospects of defeating Republican Thomas Dewey were better than 50-50.

Roosevelt’s selection process was a convoluted one, like much else in FDR’s presidency. Henry Wallace, the incumbent vice president, was one of America’s leading experts on agriculture and had served as Secretary of Agriculture under Roosevelt. But Wallace was a hard leftist with abundant sympathy for the Soviet Union. In 1948, he would run for president on the Progressive ticket.

Roosevelt liked Wallace, and organized labor loved him. However, the party bigwigs couldn’t stand him, and feared that, with Wallace on the ticket, FDR might struggle to win the South in what was expected to be a fairly close election. The bosses worked tirelessly to thwart his renomination.

The logical choice to replace Wallace was James Byrnes. He had been a Senator, a Supreme Court Justice, and the head of the Office of War Mobilization during World War II. Roosevelt regarded him as the person best able to serve as president in his place, and it was difficult to dispute this assessment.

However, Byrnes had two problems. He had converted from Catholicism and become an Episcopalian when he married. This raised concerns that he might cause Roosevelt to lose the Catholic votes he needed in big cities.

Byrnes, a South Carolinian, had also opposed civil rights legislation including anti-lynching laws. This raised concerns that he might cause FDR to lose the Black votes he needed to carry states like New York. Byrnes insisted, probably correctly, that Blacks idolized Roosevelt to the point that it didn’t matter who was on the ticket with him. However, the concern persisted.

To one degree or another, the anti-Wallace bigwigs liked Harry Truman as an alternative to Wallace and Byrnes. For his era, Truman had a good record on civil rights. He was a solid supporter of the New Deal, but no fire brand. He seemed to get along with everyone.

The popular perception is that Truman was a non-entity, plucked from obscurity as a compromise choice, But that’s not accurate. To be sure, Truman lacked the credentials of Wallace and Byrnes. However, he had served with distinction in the Senate for almost ten years. And he had made a name for himself through his tireless work as head of the Truman Committee that ferreted out waste, inefficiency, and corruption in military procurement during World War II, saving the government billions of dollars.

Other contenders included Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, longtime Senate Majority Leader and future Vice President Alben Barkley, and Supreme Court Justice and former SEC Chairman William Douglas. The Justice would have been an out-of-the-box selection, but Roosevelt seemed partial to him and made sure his name kept cropping up in speculation over the selection.

Contemplate this list and compare the credentials of its members with the credentials of those said to be on Biden’s shortlist. Biden should be embarrassed.

The process through which Truman gained the nomination is too byzantine to relate in full, but can be summarized as follows:

In 1944, the Convention selected the vice president. However, had FDR firmly endorsed a candidate, that candidate would almost certainly have been selected.

Roosevelt stopped short of endorsing anyone. However, he did praise Wallace and say that if he were a delegate, he would vote for Wallace.

This was vintage FDR. In effect, he kept the door open both for Wallace and for the anti-Wallace crowd.

The anti-Wallace crowd lobbied Roosevelt relentlessly. According to some accounts, at one point the bosses got him to say he preferred Truman. But when it came time to get something in writing, Truman’s leading backer was only able to get a note with two names — Douglas and Truman (probably in that order, although the note was long ago discarded, so we don’t know for sure).

Truman’s backers were reluctant to show anyone the note because it seemed to favor Douglas. However, the Justice, who apparently had no idea he was under serious consideration, was hiking somewhere in the West during the convention.

At the convention, party bigwigs and bosses met in a room, probably smoke filled, to figure out how to put Truman over the top in the looming floor battle with Wallace. They faced a problem, though. Truman kept saying he didn’t want the job. It’s possible that he did want it, but if so he was putting on quite a good act.

A phone call from Roosevelt, who wasn’t at the convention, beat Truman into submission. He would accept the nomination.

The night before the VP balloting, Wallace’s supporters nearly stampeded the convention into renominating him. Thousands of extra tickets had been handed out so people could hear Roosevelt’s acceptance speech, which he delivered remotely, in the convention hall. Organized labor made sure that nearly all of the extras were Wallace supporters.

They clamored to proceed directly to the VP voting. Claude Pepper, the leftist New Dealer from Florida, pushed his way to the rostrum to try to move that the voting commence. But he was spotted, and before he could do so, the convention was adjourned for the night.

The next day, admission was limited to delegates and the press. On the first ballot, Wallace held the lead. But on the second ballot, when the favorite sons withdrew, things went according to plan. Truman surged past Wallace and gained enough votes to secure the nomination.

There are no Trumans among today’s crop of Democrats, and certainly none among those whom Joe Biden reportedly is considering.



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