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Kamala Harris makes history in powerful position evolved from no takers in 19th century

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By Binsal Abdulkader

ABU DHABI, 11th November 2020 (WAM) -- The United States and the world at large are celebrating the historic win of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman ever elected vice president in the US.

She has made at least three "firsts" in history – the first woman, the first African-American and the first American of South Asian origin to reach the coveted position that is considered the second most powerful in the world, after the US President.

The position attracts further power and glamour as it has been a springboard to become the US President in recent history, as in the case of president-elect Joe Biden who was a vice president.

However, it is notable that the office of vice president evolved to the present-day prestige from a low-profile position that did not have much takers in the 19th century.

Unattractive post in 19th century

The vice presidency has grown to the current status and power during the past 44 years, according to an expert academic.

In the 19th century, the vice presidency was not viewed as an attractive position for somebody who was politically ambitious, said Joel Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus at St. Louis University School of Law in the US.

Goldstein quoted a prominent politician as saying, "I don’t propose to be buried until I’m dead," while declining the offer to be the vice presidential candidate on the ticket in 1848 with Zachary Taylor who would become 12th US President in 1849.

That was the response from Daniel Webster, one of the great American statesmen in the first part of the 19th century, who was the former senator from Massachusetts and secretary of state.

Undistinguished figures

From most of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, many vice presidents were undistinguished figures, said Goldstein who is a scholar of the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law, having written widely in these all three areas.

During that period the vice president was more of a legislative officer, with little or no function in the executive branch, the expert explained at a recent briefing organised by Foreign Press Centres, for journalists participating in a virtual reporting tour of the election process.

The U.S. Department of State had selected more than 200 journalists for the eight-week long virtual tour, from media outlets across the globe, including Emirates News Agency, WAM.

7 ill VPs die in office during 100-year period

Many of the vice presidents who were selected were in poor health when they were chosen. "From 1812, when James Madison was our fourth president, up until 1912, when William Howard Taft was our 27th president, seven of the vice presidents chosen during that period died in office," Professor Goldstein said.

Many of the vice presidents who were chosen had very modest credentials. For example, Chester A. Arthur, who was the vice president in 1880 and became the 21st President during 1881-85, had never held a position higher than collector of customs at the Port of New York, and he had been dismissed from that position, the academic explained.

And on four occasions in the 19th century, vice presidents succeeded to the presidency when the president died. But in none of those cases was the vice president elected, or even nominated for a term of their own.

VP as a political dead-end until 1950

The vice presidency during this period, up until early 1950s, was "pretty much of a political dead-end," the expert said. "It was not seen as a springboard to the presidency."

That began to change with the vice presidency of Richard Nixon in 1953, as this position moved from the legislative branch into the executive branch.

The reason for the change that began with the Nixon vice presidency related to larger changes in American life, Professor Goldstein said.

With the New Deal and Second World War, the national government became more important.

The presidency itself also became more pivotal during the Cold War as the US competed with the Soviet Union for influence abroad in an atomic age, the professor added.

Position changed by Cold War

It became important that the presidential successor has to be somebody who is informed and well thought of. Technology changed as well, and that created possibilities for areas such as foreign travel and media exposure.

"So, beginning with Nixon, the vice president became an occasional presidential advisor who attended national security meetings and other meetings occasionally in the White House," the professor said.

But the real significant change began with the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the vice presidency of Walter Mondale during the transition of 1976 to 1977.

In the Carter administration, the vice president was brought into the White House and became part of the president’s inner circle.

"This was a new model of what I have called the White House Vice Presidency, which began with President Carter and Vice President Mondale. It has really been followed ever since with some variations and on a bipartisan basis by the administrations that have followed during the last 44 years," the expert explained.


WAM/ Ibrahim Shukralla

WAM/Binsal AbdulKader