From the Veeps Archives
August 25, 2014
Will it be the Rust Belt governor who eats chili dogs with the guys at the John Deere factory or the rock-ribbed senator with a quarter-century of statesman’s gravitas? The quadrennial pageant is upon us, and for all the hoopla, you’d think our vice presidential hopefuls were auditioning for the second-most-powerful job in the country.
Would that it were so. The old saw goes that Americans vote for president, not vice president, and history bears that out. Voters gave George H.W. Bush the White House in 1988 in spite of his still-mystifying VP choice of Dan Quayle. The junior senator from Indiana accepted his nod like a child receiving a puppy on Christmas morning — and then gaffed his way to having his head handed to him by Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in one of the most memorable live television moments since Alexander Butterfield divulged the Oval Office taping apparatus.
With rare exception, the American vice presidency has long been our national afterthought, a place where naked ambition goes to die — and a heartbreaking 8 feet from the finish line.
The office has been so ill regarded that, for the first 176 years of its existence, America went without a sitting vice president for an astounding total of 37 years.
Given the rickety caliber of many of the men to hold the office, it isn’t surprising that, until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, the country placed so low a priority on how its unexpectedly departed vice presidents were replaced.
Everyone knows the story of Vice President Aaron Burr being indicted for murder in two states for the dueling death of Alexander Hamilton, but few of his successors proved to be men of appreciably greater character or capability.
Thomas Jefferson chose for his second vice president former New York Gov. George Clinton. Clinton had been circling the drain for eight years before he became Jefferson’s VP. He was hard-pressed to complete his gubernatorial farewell address in 1795 because he had “been so long in dealing in speeches that I found it extremely difficult to draft one for the last session without committing plagiarism.” New Hampshire Sen. William Plumer said of Clinton: “He is old, feeble and altogether uncapable. ... He has no mind, no intellect, no memory.”
Nonetheless, Clinton was selected again for the second slot by Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, and in 1812 became the first VP to die in office.
Madison followed his puzzling choice of the ancient Clinton with the brittle Elbridge Gerry and, in 1814, earned the distinction of being the first and only president to have two of his vice presidents die in office.
Gerry’s successor, Daniel Tompkins, under President James Monroe, was beset by personal financial difficulties and was so frequently inebriated that he couldn’t attend to his minimal duties. Noted one Senate observer, “He was several times so drunk in the chair that he could with difficulty put the question.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s disgruntled first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, abandoned Washington and returned to his native Maine, ultimately enlisting in the state’s Coast Guard. While Lincoln was putting himself in harm’s way visiting Gettysburg and Antietam, America’s second-highest officeholder was serving his riven country on plebeian kitchen duty.
Richard Nixon passed on Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller to tap unknown first-term Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his running mate. A Washington Post editorial called the selection “the most eccentric political appointment since Caligula named his horse a consul.” Agnew was driven from office when it was disclosed that he had carried into the White House a kickback deal made with a Maryland building contractor, accepting bundles of money in meetings with his liaison at his office in the Old Executive Office Building.
There were well-intended picks who wouldn’t have survived a modern vetting. President Franklin Pierce’s vice president, William Rufus DeVane King, brought to the office his purported longtime romantic relationship with the man who would become the nation’s only bachelor president, James Buchanan. The foppish and flamboyant King was referred to in Washington as “Buchanan’s better half,” “his wife” and “Miss Nancy.” To applaud Pierce’s choice as a pioneering stand for diversity would be giving him too much credit, and in any event, he overlooked the crucial issue of King’s health: King was dead of tuberculosis before he could even take his seat in Washington.
Some of the best picks have known how far beneath their pay grade the office was. Theodore Roosevelt made plans to enroll in law school, as he was certain he would have little to do in his official capacity. President Woodrow Wilson’s VP, Thomas Riley Marshall, quipped as he neared retirement, “I don’t want to work. I wouldn’t mind being vice president again.”
The nominees’ VP picks are going to fall very soon, but like the proverbial tree in the forest, don’t be surprised if they don’t make a noise, no matter how many of us are waiting to hear it.