Alben Barkley: The Last VP of His Kind

When Al Barkley became Vice President to Harry Truman in 1949, the position had been primarily ceremonial for 150 years.

The VPOTUScy in General

When our country formulated its Constitution in 1787, the position of Vice President was an afterthought. Most delegates believed it was worthless.

There was, and still is, only ONE Constitutionally assigned task for the Vice President: to preside over the Senate. Of course, if a President dies, or is otherwise unable to fulfill his duties, the VP assumes the position – but that’s a big if.

In 1804, after a debacle of an election in 1800, a Constitutional Amendment (the 12th) was quickly passed which made the Vice Presidency a separate office – but still required only presiding over the Senate.  Thus, the VPOTUS basically serves at the President’s pleasure, i.e. filling in wherever the President wishes.

So for the next century and a half, the President “wished” for the VP to handle mostly ceremonial duties, and perhaps sitting on a few dignified boards or commissions. The job was so toothless that the office was empty at various times for several years!

The Pride of Kentucky: Alben Barkley

Young Alben Barkley. Good looking, friendly – and with hustle.

Kentuckian Alben W. Barkley (1877-1956), was far from a thoroughbred. He was the oldest of eight born to a tenant tobacco farming family, deeply immersed in their religious beliefs, including strict prohibition and any form of gambling. It was a hardscrabble childhood, but he managed to get a decent education. For a while he attended Emory University in Georgia, but withdrew for financial reasons.

He returned to Kentucky, and read law/clerked for a couple of attorney-Congressmen, and in 1901, was admitted to the Kentucky Bar. In 1902, he managed to attend some classes at the University of Virginia Law School.

Then he was off and running on a Democratic political medium-track by running for county attorney. He won the election, and over the next decade proved to be a pretty fair attorney: honest and unafraid to tackle political investigations that uncovered a huge amount of corruption. Even the Republicans in Kentucky liked him.

But more than anything, Al Barkley was nice looking and very likeable. It was his greatest asset. He was super-good at the meet and greets, joined all the popular civic organizations, loved speaking in public, and had a generous amount of eloquence, wit and charm. And he really was a pretty good lawyer.

Alben in Washington

Congressman and Senator Alben Barkley

So it wasn’t much of a stretch for young Al Barkley to run for Congress in 1912. In a convoluted election with several candidates, he won with 49% of the vote. Always valuing party loyalty, he cemented his political popularity by steadfastly supporting the Democratic line. His conservatism was tempered under the auspices of President Woodrow Wilson, who he admired. And while admitting to personal temperance, he managed to waffle, duck and keep silent on Prohibition, which had risen to the top of the issues list. And he still remained popular!

Rising in visibility, reputation, diligence and assignments, Barkley remained in Congress on and off until until 1927 – when he successfully ran for the U.S Senate.

Barkley the Orator.

Always a popular orator, Barkley became a well-known keynote or nominating speaker or temporary chairman at practically every Democratic national convention for the next twenty years. His folksy charm and wit  captivated audiences. Then, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected President in 1936, Barkley became Majority Leader, a position he held for the next ten years. He gained a national reputation as a loyal party man, who could/would bow to the “will of the people,” a solid campaigner and diligent worker – and above all, someone just about everybody liked. They might oppose him politically, but never personally.

The Clock is Ticking…

Alben Barkley always had ambition. Maybe a seat on the Supreme Court? Maybe Vice President? Fair and do-able. But by World War II, Al was well past sixty, when that number was considered “borderline old.”  If he sought higher office, time was not on his side.

President Harry Truman

Truman and Barkley.

Franklin Roosevelt had been President for 12 years, and had just begun his 4th elected term, when time ran out on the President, whose health had been failing rapidly. Harry Truman, Senator from Missouri, had been elected as his Vice President, and was now Chief Executive. (And like seven other VPs who assumed the Presidency via death, Truman served without a Vice President.)

Meanwhile, in 1947, Barkley’s wife Dorothy, who he had married in 1903, died after a very long illness. With mounting medical bills and only his Senate salary, he parlayed his renown as a raconteur into an aggressive speaking schedule on the “rubber-chicken circuit” to augment his income.

The VEEP

The running mates of ’48.

The famous headline of ’48!

Harry Truman was not a popular president, and the likelihood of being elected to a term of his own was nearly unthinkable. But Truman persisted, won the nomination, and the “convention” chose Alben Barkley as his running mate. He was 71 years old. Truman was 65. At that point, the nominees were the oldest “team” in history. Nevertheless, they mounted an exhausting barnstorming campaign, crisscrossing the country by train and by air, alternating between grit and charm to surprise the world by winning.

The Veep and his bride.

Barkley’s ten-year-old grandson was the originator of the nickname “VEEP” for the new Vice President. It caught on with the press, and Barkley was thereafter The VEEP. Truman and Barkley, both midwestern farm boys who grew up the hard way, found much in common and Truman actually found substantive tasks for his energetic VEEP.

But mostly Al-The-VEEP still was dispatched to the ceremonial tasks where he excelled. He went to the funerals, the ribbon-cuttings, the state fairs and the beauty queen contests. In between, he managed to court and marry a woman decades his junior – the only VEEP to remarry while in office. And he always said he had a grand time of it!

Sources:

Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing

https://www.senate.gov/about/officers-staff/vice-president/VP_Alben_Barkley.htm

 

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