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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wisconsin Republican Declined Vice-Presidency

Strangely enough, the vice-presidency used to be considered so insignificant that many politicians turned it down. Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are competing for an office that FDR's vice president said was "not worth a bucket of warm..." Wait. We probably shouldn't say that on a family-oriented Web site.

If elected, Rep. Ryan will be the first vice president from Wisconsin. Superior's Irvine Lenroot had the vice-presidency all wrapped up back in 1920 but turned it down at the last minute -- accidentally forfeiting his chance to occupy the White House when President Harding died in 1923. Here's what happened.

A Wisconsin Favorite Son

Lenroot (1869-1949) became a successful attorney in Superior during the 1890s. He was active in local politics and named a delegate to the Republican state conventions of 1900 and 1902.

At the time, the Republican Party was split between a conservative old guard and passionate Progressive reformers led by Fighting Bob La Follette. Lenroot was a La Follette ally, and in 1904 he presided over the convention that gave control of the state party to the Progressive wing.

From 1901 to 1906 he was a state legislator and from 1908 to 1918 served in the House of Representatives. Although a faithful Progressive on issues like child labor and taxation, Lenroot broke with La Follette over America's entry into World War One.

In 1918 he defeated La Follette's hand-picked choice in a Wisconsin Senate race and went back to Washington as a Republican moderate, hoping to bring the reformers and the old guard together. He made friends on both sides of the divide, including Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Republican national chairman Will Hays of Indiana, and future president Herbert Hoover.

Declines the VP Nomination

In 1920 Lenroot went to the Republican National Convention (shown here) as part of a platform committee hoping to unify the party. But unification was an unrealizable ideal. Most of the Wisconsin delegates, for example, refused to support anyone but La Follette even though he had no chance of being elected president.

Day after day the delegates voted, trying to find a presidential nominee that both wings could support. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, Sen. Warren Harding of Ohio was chosen on the tenth ballot. By then most of the exhausted delegates were more concerned about checking out of their hotels and meeting their trains than about who would be Harding's running mate.

None of the rejected candidates for the top spot would accept second billing. If possible, party leaders wanted a western Progressive who could balance Harding's Eastern credentials. Lenroot was from the Midwest, had a sound Progressive track record, and was well-liked by his colleagues. Sen. William McCormick of Illinois tracked him down on the convention floor and asked him to accept nomination for vice president.

Lenroot replied that he preferred to stay in the Senate, or even return to private life, rather than "be shut up in the vice-president's chair." But he asked for a few moments to find his wife and consult with her.

In those few minutes, nominating speeches began on stage and McCormick put forth Lenroot's name. Voices from the floor denounced him, refusing to support anyone from intransigent Wisconsin. Others opposed having a pair of U.S. senators top the ticket. Some delegates began to call out for Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, and he was chosen before Lenroot could reconsider.

Harding and Coolidge went on to win in November.Three years later Harding died in office and Coolidge rather than Lenroot became president.

No Regrets

Lenroot always said afterwards that he had made the right choice. As Senator he could introduce legislation and shape public policy, but as vice president he would have been mainly a figurehead. After retiring from the Senate in 1927, he resumed his law practice in Washington, and from 1929 until 1944 served as a judge. He spent his last years writing his memoirs, and died at his home in Washington in January 1949.

Today, of course, the vice-presidency is a crucial leadership position. The vice-president not only takes over if the president dies or is incapacitated, but is also involved in cabinet meetings, policy formation, diplomacy, and even military affairs. In many cases it has been considered a stepping-stone for a future presidential candidacy. We've come a long way from the days when rising politicians viewed it as a dead end.

Discover More

To learn more about the nation's vice presidents, check out Jeremy Lott's book, The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency (NY: Thomas Nelson, 2008)

Lenroot's fateful decision was chronicled in detail by historian Herbert Margolies in 1977 in "Irvine L. Lenroot and the Republican Vice-Presidential Nomination of 1920" in the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on October 9, 2012
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