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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

WASHINGTON — Mike Pence, the Republican Indiana governor, showed more style in the vice presidential debate against earnest Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. So there’s work to do.

Attend closely to each candidate. Ask how the Number Two plays on the national stage and how much the stakes matter. More than you might think. When the Veep steers the ship, at times it’s right into the rocks. Whatever your political party, remember Sarah Palin, the unserious pick made by John McCain, the elderly 2008 Republican standard-bearer. That told us, right quick, about his wild judgment.

Teddy Roosevelt is the sunniest member of the club who succeeded a president who died in office. That was a century ago. Since April 1945, Democrat Harry S. Truman, the ailing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, has been seen as another fortunate successor.

Sure, we get lucky across the stepping stones of time. They say Gerald Ford — the only Veep ever to succeed a president who resigned — was a decent chap in the House and as president for two years.

So listen for the voices on the zeitgeist. The first 11 presidents, from George Washington to James Polk, elected in 1844, came in pairs, though Thomas Jefferson had to do one better, with a bunch.

Early leaders in their ambition and lust for power, Jefferson had two Virginia proteges, James Madison and James Monroe, succeed him. The key word is “Virginia,” for they owned slave plantations within riding distance, of course. Nothing but the best for Jefferson.

This created a Virginia presidential dynasty for, wait for it, 24 straight years.

Jefferson had two vice presidents, one of whom was the elegant Aaron Burr, who would have made a better commander in chief than the hapless Madison. The fourth president fled the capital as the British army burned it in 1814.

Unlike Jefferson or Madison, Burr was a Revolutionary Army officer. But he was a younger New Yorker who tied Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. Jefferson had an enemies list, too, and intrigued against Burr, keeping up the famous charm.

Setting another precedent for the later Bush family, Adams brought his namesake son, John Quincy Adams, to the highest office in 1824, shortly before the father died. But slaveholder and general Andrew Jackson “Old Hickory” beat him in a bitter rematch.

Andrew Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, succeeded him peacefully, just as Yankee John Adams, the first vice president, succeeded the general on horseback, George Washington. Different as they were, the first Federalists tried to set an example for future generations.

I might add that Jackson groomed a protege to the presidency, James Polk, after he left office. Jackson and Jefferson were presidential history’s only “doubleheaders.”

Then there was beloved Abraham Lincoln, who worked the land himself. But a field trip reminded me he made a near-fatal choice in his 1864 running mate.

Oh, the winds of history blew me away to a stark, chilling sight: a military courtroom. The “Lincoln conspirators” were tried here, with a makeshift gallows built outside at Fort McNair. Four assassination conspirators were convicted and hanged in the summer of 1865. The 16th president was the first one to die in office.

As Civil War guns were stilled, Andrew Johnson, the vice president, could not have been less like Lincoln. The roughhewn, tactless Tennessean was not one to heal wounds of war. Hated by North and South alike, he was impeached.

You know the scene: Ford’s Theatre on a spring night as actor John Wilkes Booth stormed President Lincoln’s box and shot him behind the ear.

It seems the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. “Macbeth” was Lincoln’s favorite.

The four — one was a woman, innkeeper Mary Surratt — were treated harshly, on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s orders: kept wrapped in hot blankets and hoods in Washington’s heavy heat. The nation’s blood had spilled again; Lincoln was the final casualty of the Civil War.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com