John F. Kennedy believed that being passed over for vice president by the Democratic convention in 1956 saved his political career. That year, Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee, had left the selection of his running mate to the convention delegates—the last time a nominee did so. The choice came down to Kennedy and his Senate colleague Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who had lined up too much early support even for the attractive young war hero to overcome. In the end, Kennedy had it both ways. He benefited from the television exposure and was spared the blame—which as a Catholic, he would have shared—for Stevenson's walloping by President Eisenhower that November. As for Estes, except for crossword puzzlers, nobody much remembers him.
Running and losing for vice president has never been a promising route to the Oval Office. Yet Sarah Palin, even before this week's book tour mediathon, has been touted by some as the heir apparent of the Republican Party, if not its de facto leader. Right-wing devotees cheer her on, liberals writhe in fear lest she come within 3,000 miles of the White House, and the news media lavish her with attention that's out of proportion to her actual chances of a political future. In fact, only one defeated vice presidential candidate ever achieved the feat that Palin would like to duplicate, and to date she shows no signs of resembling Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR, as a young assistant secretary of the Navy, ran in 1920 as running mate to Ohio Gov. James Cox, in large part on the strength of his family name. But his was a fluke choice, a harbinger of the oncoming age of celebrity. (Moreover, he would conquer polio and serve as governor of New York before running in 1932.) Prior to that, the vice presidency itself—to say nothing of the running mate slot for the losing side—was a backwater. Before the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, a different system had helped Vice Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson become president, but the fate of understudies since then has been bleak. Only Martin Van Buren went from the No. 2 slot to winning election as president, and until Theodore Roosevelt broke the mold, even vice presidents who inherited the top office and logged time as chief executive didn't get their parties' nomination.
If the vanquished vice presidential running mates who preceded FDR were largely anonymous, those who followed him were scarcely more august. A few achieved distinction, in particular, California Gov. Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey's partner in 1948. But neither Charles Bryan (1924) nor Joe Robinson (1928) nor Charles Curtis (1932) nor Frank Knox (1936) nor Charles McNary (1940) nor John Bricker (1944) nor John Sparkman (1952) nor Kefauver (1956) nor Henry Cabot Lodge (1960) was a presidential contender during the next cycle. Barry Goldwater's 1964 running mate, William Miller, cut one of the early American Express "Do you know me?" ads featuring pitchmen whose 15 minutes of fame had expired.
Starting with Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's vice president for eight years, the veep took on additional responsibilities, as the sheer number of tasks assumed by the White House proliferated. Television began turning politicians into celebrities, and the sitting vice president gained in stature. The 22nd Amendment limiting the president to two terms also helped make the veep the default choice for his party's presidential nomination the next time around.
But while sitting vice presidents have often secured their parties' nominations in modern times—Nixon (1960), Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984), George Bush Sr. (1988), Al Gore (2000)—of defeated vice presidential nominees, only Bob Dole did so (in 1996), and it took him 20 years. Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, Lloyd Bentsen, Geraldine Ferraro, Sargent Shriver—though not lightweights, these politicians weren't presidential timber in most people's eyes. Edmund Muskie in 1972 and John Edwards in 2008 did emerge from their failed vice presidential bids as plausible candidates, but even they couldn't go the distance.