October 26, 2021

Pence at crossroads

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Joel Goldstein, an expert on the American vice presidency, spoke Tuesday at SUNY Cortland about the history of the position and its current challenges.

Two words bring home the point of a talk Tuesday at SUNY Cortland: President Pence.

Between the time Joel Goldstein was first scheduled in September to discuss the topic of United States vice presidents, and Tuesday, the topic has grown critically important as President Donald Trump faces possible impeachment and Vice President Mike Pence stands first in line to succeed him.

“Every day is like a week’s worth of news,” Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the college, said after Goldstein’s nearly hour-long presentation to a group of more than 80 people in the Corey Union Function Room. “Pence is very much in the middle of all of this.”

“It was insightful as far as the current administration is concerned,” said Alex Rundle, a sophomore from Watkins Glenn majoring in history and adolescent education.

Goldstein said the position of the vice president has evolved over time, most sharply in the second half of the 20th century. The emphasis had initially been in the legislative branch, serving as president of the Senate, but in the past 70 years it became a key in the executive branch, in many cases a supporter for the president.

Goldstein is the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”

Traditionally, vice presidents held a largely ceremonial position and were not routinely involved in the decisions of the president, Goldstein said. He noted President Harry Truman was not aware of the Manhattan Project, the development of the nuclear bomb, until the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated him to the presidency during World War II.

After Truman, vice presidents were more recognized as potential successors to the president and the vice presidency was seen more clearly as a route to the presidency, succeeding a president after death or removal from office, or by later winning election as a presidential candidate.

The most startling shift in the role of the vice president came under President Jimmy Carter, who gave Vice President Walter Mondale much responsibility, making sure he was informed and involved.

“Carter treated Mondale with dignity,” Goldstein said.

That has continued through successors, including Vice President Joe Biden, Goldstein said. Trump has brought Pence into meetings, sent him as an emissary to other nations and given him other responsibilities. But the president has contradicted Pence’s public statements and the role of vice president has become more limited than vice presidents since Mondale.

Pence has stood by Trump through the controversies. “Perhaps his gamble will lead him to the presidency, perhaps not,” Goldstein said.

Pence was chosen from a small pool of candidates as Trump was not given much chance to win the presidency and key Republicans had already had public feuds with Trump, Goldstein said, eliminating them from consideration.

Now Pence could succeed Trump if the president is eventually removed from office, but Pence could face a similar fate if it is found he was involved in the troubles that threaten to topple Trump’s presidency, Goldstein said.