One of the more intense topics of U.S. presidential campaigns is the selection of the running mate. The media is seemingly agog to determine which politician the major party candidates will tap to be their partner on the campaign trail and, more importantly, who will arise to the presidency in case the person elected President dies while in office. In recent years, the lunacy has hit a fever pitch, with reporters staking out the homes and families of potential vice presidential candidates, in hopes of being the first to spy Secret Service agents pulling up to protect the nominee. And at times, this rush for the story has led to faux pas such as the one pictured above, when, in 2004, the New York Post ran a front page story (see the full storyhere) noting that unsuccessful Democratic nominee John Kerry had selected Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt as his running mate. (Later that day, Kerry would select North Carolina Senator John Edwards to be his Veep.)
But it was not always that way. More accurately, over a century earlier, the process was still one marked with lunacy, just of a different brand.
In 1876, the Republican Party nominated Rutherford B. Hayes to run for President. Hayes, then Governor of Ohio, narrowly beat out James G. Blaine, a Senator from Maine for the nomination, in a bitter battle which polarized the GOP. (Blaine nonetheless ended up garnering the GOP nomination in 1884.) Instrumental in Blaine’s defeat were the delegates who originally supported New York Senator Roscoe Conkling but were unwilling to see Blaine’s camp win the day. Those delegates voted for Hayes and, in order to assuage Conkling, sought to make the New York Senator something of a kingmaker, giving him de facto power to select Hayes’ running mate.
How? At the time, the presidential candidate did not choose his own running mate; the candidate for that position was decided upon by delegates to the convention. (This is still true today but in almost all cases a mere formality.) The GOP party bosses allowed the New York delegation (which Conkling informally led) to choose the nominee. But this turned out to be more of a headache than an honor. The vice president position was not a very appealing role — even Conkling himself did not want the job. One New York delegate, jokingly, suggested that New York Congressman William A. Wheeler be nominated; the suggestion was met with laughter. (The absurdity was not lost on Wheeler himself, who laughed at it as well.) But the next morning, the absurd became reality when, by acclamation, the Republican convention delegates nominated Wheeler to be Hayes’ running mate.
Upon hearing that Wheeler would be joining him, Hayes stated: “I am ashamed to say: Who is Wheeler?” Hayes simply had no idea who his new running mate was.
Nevertheless, the Hayes/Wheeler ticket won the general election, albeit in one of the most disputed presidential elections in American history. And with that, William A. Wheeler became perhaps the most unlikely Vice President in U.S. history.
Bonus fact: Conkling’s claim to fame — at least in the “oddities” category — goes well beyond the Wheeler nomination. Twice (by two different presidents) he was offered a Supreme Court position; both times, he declined. The second time, in 1882, he was even confirmed by the Senate, yet he still declined the position. He is the last person to do so.
From the Archives: Soothsaying Crossword: When the New York Times’ crossword predicted the outcome of the presidential election.
Related: “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance” by Bill Kelter. Five reviews, averaging five stars.