At a traffic light the other day I saw a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on the car in the other lane. I'd almost forgotten how close John Edwards came to national office, but then thought, "Well, just Vice President."
Still, Vice President is a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land. Eight men have had to take on this role earlier than they'd planned, becoming some of our more obscure Presidents. These are five who had greatness thrust upon them.
1. John Tyler, 1841-1845. Tyler's running mate, William Henry Harrison ("Tippecanoe" of the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too"), died only 31 days into his term. Tyler wasn't even in Washington at the time, having returned to his home in Williamsburg, VA after overseeing the Senate's confirmation of Harrison's cabinet on March 5, 1841. The nation was only 65 years old; Harrison was only the ninth President. No one had died in office before. While the Constitution specified that the responsibilities of the Presidency "shall devolve on the Vice President," no one knew exactly what that meant, and in fact the issues weren't fully clarified until the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967. It was Tyler who decided that he should be sworn in as President, to serve out the remainder of Harrison's office. His political rivals and the contemporary press referred to him as "His Accidency." He was unpopular from the beginning, not only with rivals such as John Quincy Adams (serving in the U.S. House of Representatives after his single term as President), but also with theoretical allies such as Henry Clay, who had assumed that President Harrison would be his puppet. Instead, Tyler vetoed two bills to create a national bank, and became the first target of an impeachment motion after vetoing a tariff bill. On the plus side, he settled a potential rebellion in Rhode Island without military intervention, led the campaign for the annexation of Texas, and established the U.S. interest in Hawaii. Unable to secure his own party's nomination to a second term, he returned to private life in 1845. When he's remembered now, it's mostly for having more children (15) than any other U.S. President.
2. Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853. Millard Fillmore's presidency was short but important. Fillmore and his President, Zachary Taylor, were uneasy political allies; although Fillmore came from a free state (New York), he was an appeaser on the issue of slavery, and supported allowing slavery in the new Western territories. He presided over the Senate debates on the Missouri Compromise before Taylor died of cholera and medical incompetence in July 1850, after only 16 months in office. As President, Fillmore oversaw the final shaping of the Missouri Compromise. In trying to please everyone, he pleased no one; he saved the Union at the cost of his own political career. He did not win his own party's nomination for the 1852 election, and lost an 1856 run on the Know-Nothing ticket. Something about Fillmore's story seems sad; for a highly entertaining alternative history, check out George Pendle's brilliant THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President.
3. Andrew Johnson, 1865-1869. As far as I can tell, he managed to have an illustrious political career without being liked by anyone. He was a Senator from Tennessee who took the Union side when Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861 (East Tennessee, which Johnson represented, voted against secession). He became military governor of occupied Tennessee in 1862, and was nominated Vice President in 1864 as part of the National Union Party ticket. He was supposed to be assassinated on the same night as President Lincoln, but his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, chickened out and got drunk instead. Therefore Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, but under an undeserved cloud of suspicion: why had he survived when several others had been attacked? Johnson didn't help his cause, vetoing his own party's civil rights bill (it was overridden) and opposing the Fourteenth Amendment. He survived two separate impeachment actions, and didn't even try to run for reelection as President. Instead, he ran for one of Tennessee's Senate seats, and lost. He was eventually reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1874, but served only five months before dying of a stroke.
4. Chester A. Arthur, 1881-1885. Chester A. Arthur was a New York political appointee seen as lightweight at best and corrupt at worst when he was added to James A. Garfield's presidential ticket. Arthur was the only man who'd accept the job, once it became clear that Garfield would be the Republican party's compromise candidate, an alternative to Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine. He surprised everyone when he took office after Garfield's assassination by being a very good president. His championship of civil service reform meant the end of years of patronage, which was good for government but bad for his political career. He signed federal legislation that banned polygamists from voting or holding public office, and vetoed legislation that would have imposed a 20-year-ban on Chinese immigration. A long-hidden case of Bright's disease, a degenerative kidney disorder, led to a serious decline in his health; although he was a candidate for President in 1884, he didn't campaign very hard, and the nomination went to James G. Blaine. He was quite ill by the time he left office, and died of a stroke in the fall of 1886.
5. Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929. A native of Vermont, Coolidge was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1918. His handling of the Boston Police Strike of 1919 drew national attention, and spurred suggestions that he run for President. While he drew a few convention votes as a "favorite son" candidate, the 1920 nomination went to Warren G. Harding of Ohio, with Coolidge as Vice President. Coolidge was the first Vice President to attend Cabinet meetings, which was helpful when he took office after Harding's death in 1923. Coolidge was on vacation in Vermont when he got the news, and took the oath of office from his own father, a notary public. He surprised almost everyone when he ran for reelection in 1924. The death of his son, Calvin Jr., in the midst of the election year made it a subdued campaign, but Coolidge was reelected easily. The economy flourished under his hands-off approach ("Generally speaking, the business of America is business"). He declined to run for reelection in 1928, and left office well ahead of the 1929 stock market crash. He died of a heart attack in 1933, at the age of 60.