His Democratic opponents derided him as too old for the presidency. They called him “granny.” They even suggested that he might be senile. Yet despite lingering questions about his age and his health, and largely on his reputation as a war hero, William Henry Harrison was elected the ninth President of the United States, taking the oath of office on March 4, 1841.
One month later, he was dead.
It can be a mistake to draw too many parallels from one historical event to another, yet the election of 1840 and the turbulent years that followed should serve as a stark reminder of the importance of every president’s first major decision, that of choosing his running mate. Harrison was 68 years old when he won the White House, the oldest president to be elected until Ronald Reagan, and the first to die in office. His successor, John Tyler, proved an ineffective and unpopular president.
President Tyler was scorned and ridiculed by both parties, dismissed by his critics as “His Accidency.” He was the first president to have a veto overridden by Congress, and the first to be the target of an impeachment resolution. He was also the first sitting US president refused nomination for a second term by his own party. Tyler has gone down in history as one of the least effective US presidents, and as the first in a series of weak chief executives whose actions (or lack thereof) laid the immediate groundwork for the Civil War.
The speculation and debate surrounding vice presidential picks usually focuses on electoral calculus—on efforts to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the presidential nominee, and achieve a broader demographic and/or geographic appeal. But this politicization of the decision ignores its real world consequences, for while it may be considered distasteful to dwell on the mortality of our elected leaders, history tells us that vice presidents often ascend to the Oval Office upon the death or resignation of their predecessor, and thus their qualification to serve in that capacity should always be our number one concern.
Of the 38 men to have been elected President since 1789, eight have failed to complete their final term—more than one out of five. And at 72 years old, in remission from cancer for a second time (he had deadly melanomas removed in 1993 and 2000), the possibility of a President John McCain’s death or incapacitation in office is far from remote. Hopeful Americans stand in line to plunk down hard earned cash on a 1 in 120,000,000 chance to hit the Powerball lottery, yet if history is any guide, a Vice President Sarah Palin would stand a roughly 1 in 4.75 chance of succeeding John McCain before the end of his second term.
Those are damn good odds for Palin. And damn bad odds for the US and the world if she is unprepared to lead our nation through our current turbulent times.