When the former Delaware senator, Joseph R. Biden, took the oath of office of the vice president of the United States at 11:55 this morning, he became the first Catholic to hold that office in the nation’s history. John F. Kennedy holds the distinction of being the first — and only — Catholic president in history, but until today no other Catholic man or woman has achieved winning the second-highest office in the land.
A handful of others have tried.
The first Catholic to run for vice president was Edmund S. Muskie, former governor and sitting senator from Maine. He joined Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey’s campaign to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 election. Humphrey had been Johnson’s vice president and the campaign suffered from Johnson’s failed Vietnam War policies and the turmoil of the Great Society. The Democrats lost the election to Richard M. Nixon of California and Spiro T. Agnew, Maryland’s governor.
The election marked Nixon’s triumphant return to politics. His career had taken a bad tumble after his loss in 1960 to Kennedy, the only Catholic to be elected president. Muskie went on to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state.
The second Catholic to run on a major party ticket was Thomas F. Eagleton, who ran on the 1972 Democratic ticket headed by South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern. Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, only ran for 18 days. He was forced off the ticket after revelations about his past hospitalizations for mental health problems surfaced. He was succeeded as the party’s vice presidential nominee by another Catholic, Robert Sargent Shriver of Maryland. A hugely popular political activist, Shriver was first head of the Peace Corps and an ambassador to France. McGovern and Shriver lost in one of the nation’s greatest landslide elections to Nixon and Agnew, who were seeking second terms. Interestingly, Shiver was the last presidential or vice presidential nominee not to have served as a governor or member of Congress prior to nomination.
The fourth Catholic to make it on a national ticket was Geraldine Ferraro, a representative from New York. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale achieved the Democratic nomination and asked Ferraro to be his running mate. She was the first woman and the first Italian American to run on a major party national ticket. Mondale and Ferraro were defeated by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who were seeking re-election to a second term.
No other Catholic would nab a place on the national ticket until Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004.
What religious denomination has prevailed in the 44 runs for the vice presidency? Presbyterians top the list, with Episcopalians a close second.
Update: Peter Chila (below) is correct. New York Congressman William Miller ran for vice president on the 1964 ticket headed by Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. They were trounced by Johnson and Humphrey.
Interestingly, Miller hailed from the same state that gave America its first Catholic to run at the head of a national ticket. New York Gov. Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. He overwhelmingly carried the Catholic vote, but it wasn’t enough to defeat his opponent, Herbert Hoover, who won by a landslide.
Miller had the distinction of representing two New York districts in Congress, and he later went on to become chairman of the Republican Party. New York, of course, went on to contribute another Catholic candidate: Geraldine Ferraro.
Thank you, Mr. Chila.