Vice Presidents and Other Heirs Apparent: The Historical Experience of Experience


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay is a revised version of an issue paper prepared for the Brookings Institution, Issues in Governance Studies, no. 12 (March 2008). Reprinted with the permission of the Governance Studies Program at Brookings.

Charles O. Jones is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is a former president of the American Political Science Association.


The 2008 presidential campaign is said to be an open contest, one lacking an incumbent seeking reelection or an heir apparent. It is true that neither a vice president nor a cabinet official with a presidential endorsement is running. But Hillary Clinton has validated her candidacy on the basis of her experience as first lady, a claim endorsed by her husband, a former president. This special form of heir apparentness raises questions about the historical experience of White House experience. The record shows that heirs apparent running as inheritors (vice presidents), endorsees (cabinet secretaries), or self-declarers (mostly claimants some years hence from their service) have a mixed record of getting nominated, elected, or reelected. Further, the winners have average to below-average presidential service as rated by presidential scholars. Of the top-ranked presidents in two recent surveys, just one, Thomas Jefferson, had previous White House experience. The article speculates as to why this should be so.