He thought the vice presidency was useless — until Woodrow Wilson had a stroke
Long before Kamala Harris complained of ‘ridiculous’ media coverage, Thomas Marshall begged for any attention at all
Vice President Harris is the target of a flood of media attention these days. That sets her apart from many of her predecessors. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under President Woodrow Wilson, wrote that he once got tourists to notice him by standing at the door of his vice-presidential Senate office and inviting them “to throw peanuts at me.”
By contrast, many of Harris’s White, male predecessors complained they were ignored by the press in an office with scant power to do much of anything. John Adams, the first vice president, described the position as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously grumbled, “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” (He didn’t really say “spit.”) Nelson Rockefeller, who served under Gerald Ford, lamented, “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”
Yet some vice presidents have wielded significant influence on policy, such as Richard B. Cheney under President George W. Bush. And of course their office carries serious weight, given that vice presidents are one heartbeat away from the presidency. Marshall, who served from 1913 to 1921, exemplified both ends of the spectrum.
Wilson picked the popular 58-year-old Indiana governor as his Democratic running mate in 1912 to appeal to Midwestern voters. The wisecracking Marshall had no illusions about the office. He told the story: “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.”
After taking office, Marshall later wrote in his book “Hoosier Salad,” he “soon ascertained that I was of no importance to the administration beyond the duty of being loyal to it and ready, at any time, to act as a sort of pinch hitter; that is, when everybody else on the team had failed.”
Marshall focused on presiding over the Senate. Wilson kept him out of the loop on major policy matters, including establishing a federal income tax and allowing some federal agencies to racially segregate workers. About the only thing the two men did together was to attend the 1913 opening baseball game of the Washington Senators.
Marshall’s wit did draw media attention. In early 1914, after a senator droned on about what America needs, the vice president said to Senate clerks, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” The quip caught on around the country.
Unlike with Harris, Marshall’s media coverage was upbeat — even when he bought a French silk top hat. But he soon faded into the background. The folksy Hoosier didn’t mesh with Ivy League intellectual Wilson, who privately had called Marshall “a very small-caliber man.” The vice president didn’t have an office in the White House complex then, so Marshall was relegated to his office next to the Senate chamber.
The office is “so small that to survive it is necessary to keep the door open to obtain the necessary cubic feet of air,” Marshall wrote in his book. Capitol guides pointed him out to tourists as if he were “a curiosity,” he wrote; so he “went to the door one day and said, ‘If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me; but if you are really desirous of seeing me, come in and shake hands.’ ”
Some party leaders wanted to dump Marshall from the 1916 ticket, but Wilson kept him because he was a valuable campaign speaker. Wilson won reelection on the theme “He kept us out of war” — then in April 1917 got Congress to declare U.S. entry into World War I.
Marshall continued to make light of his utter uselessness as vice president. “I’ve got the best job I ever had now — no responsibilities,” he said in Boston in late 1918. “If things go wrong, nobody can blame you for it. You have no policies to shape and precedent says you shan’t say anything.”
Two weeks later, matters turned more serious for him. When Wilson went on an extended trip to Paris to negotiate the end of the Great War, Marshall on Dec. 10, 1918, became the first vice president ever to preside over a Cabinet meeting. While at the Paris meetings the next April, Wilson came down with what the White House said was a cold but was actually the infamous 1918 flu.
After Wilson returned, Marshall resumed his normal duties. On Oct. 2, 1919, he was in Hoboken, N.J., greeting the arriving King Albert I of Belgium. That day, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Nobody was told how seriously incapacitated Wilson was, including his vice president. After two weeks, a top Wilson aide sent a Baltimore Sun reporter to brief Marshall on the president’s illness. Marshall later said, “It was the first great shock of my life.”
Some Cabinet members and senators pressed Marshall to take over presidential duties. This was decades before the 25th Amendment specified that the vice president should assume the presidential role in the case of a disabled president. Marshall insisted he wouldn’t do so without a congressional resolution that the president was unable to serve. He declared, “I am not going to seize the place and then have Wilson — recovered — come around and say, ‘Get off, you usurper,’ ” Thomas Cooper wrote in his book on Wilson, “Breaking the Heart of the World.”
Marshall tried to visit the president, but first lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who disliked the vice president, blocked him. It was later revealed that Mrs. Wilson secretly took over the president’s decision-making.
On Nov. 23, Marshall was speaking in Atlanta to the Order of the Moose when a policeman rushed down the aisle with a message that was whispered to the vice president: He had a phone call from Washington that the president was dead.
“The vice president staggered, steadying himself as he raised his hand and said, ‘I cannot continue my speech. I leave at once to take up my duties as chief executive of this great nation,’ ” United Press International reported. Marshall rushed backstage as people in the audience wept, and an organist played “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”
But the caller had hung up. Marshall soon realized he had been tricked. “It was a most cruel hoax to have perpetuated on the audience and on me,” he said.
Back in Washington, Marshall and his wife, Lois, faced their own tragedy in February 1920. Their 3-year-old foster son, Morrison, known as “Izzy,” died of a blood condition.
Marshall didn’t see Wilson again until the 1921 inauguration of Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The year before, after Coolidge was nominated for vice president, Marshall had sent him a telegram saying, “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”
Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.