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The vice-presidential learning center features a sweatshirt worn by the young Dan Quayle. (Jason Boyle)

The Vice Presidents That History Forgot

The U.S. vice presidency has been filled by a rogues gallery of mediocrities, criminals and even corpses

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This road to vice-presidential respectability has, of course, hit bumps. Lyndon Johnson feuded with the Kennedys and their aides, who called him “Uncle Cornpone.” Agnew took kickbacks in his White House office. Nelson Rockefeller, given little but ceremonial duties by President Ford, said of his job: “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.” Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face.

Veeps have also struggled to shed their image as lightweights, bench warmers and easy targets of derision. Dan Quayle’s frequent gaffes gave endless fodder to late-night TV hosts, and one of his malapropisms entered Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful.” Quayle’s troubles even feature at the learning center named for him in Indiana. The director, Johns, says the museum began as a small “hometown rah-rah exhibit” at a local library. But with Quayle’s encouragement, it grew into a two-story collection focused on the office rather than Huntington’s favorite son. Though Quayle occupies more space than any other VP, the exhibits on him refer to the “potatoe” incident and include a political cartoon of a reporter with a bat, enjoying “Quayle season.”

Johns takes the long view of Quayle’s drubbing by the press, and believes it’s instructive for students who visit his museum. “Quayle took a lot of flak, and that’s pretty much the history of the vice presidency, going back two centuries,” he says. Johns also suggests, half-seriously, that potential VPs be vetted for qualities other than their experience and integrity. Humility and a sense of humor may be equally important prerequisites for the job.

No one grasped this better than Quayle’s fellow Hoosier, Thomas Marshall, whose home lies 20 miles north of Huntington on the “Highway of Vice Presidents,” so-called because three of Indiana’s lived along it. Marshall was a small-town lawyer for most of his career, and his modest clapboard home now houses a museum of county history, with a brick outhouse in the yard. Inside, the exhibits include Marshall’s shaving cup, a “pig stein” given to him by a German diplomat and pictures of him feeding a squirrel at the Capitol. Only one or two people visit each week to see the Marshall items.

“The epitome of the vice president as nonentity,” reads Marshall’s entry in an authoritative Senate history of the office. President Woodrow Wilson was a haughty Princetonian who considered Marshall a “small-caliber man.” Wilson also wrote that a VP’s only significance “consists in the fact that he may cease to be Vice President.”

In Marshall’s case this almost happened, when Wilson suffered a paralytic stroke. But the VP was so out of the loop that he didn’t know the severity of Wilson’s condition until told by a reporter that the president might die. “I never have wanted his shoes,” wrote Marshall, who continued to do little more than entertain foreign dignitaries and throw out the first pitch on opening day.

He did, however, gain a reputation for wit. While listening to a long Senate speech about the nation’s needs, Marshall quipped: “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” He also told a joke about two brothers. “One ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”

This proved true of Marshall, who quietly returned to Indiana and wrote a self-deprecating memoir. He didn’t want to work anymore, he said, wryly adding: “I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”

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