The Vice Presidents That History Forgot

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

The vice-presidential learning center features a sweatshirt worn by the young Dan Quayle. (Jason Boyle)
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Even more eccentric was Richard Johnson, a Kentucky legislator who once petitioned Congress to send an expedition to drill “the Polar regions,” to determine if the earth was hollow and habitable. He also boasted of being “born in a cane brake and cradled in a sap trough,” and took credit for slaying the Indian chief Tecumseh. This spawned the campaign slogan “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Col. Johnson killed Tecumsey!” It also made the frontier war-hero a ticket-balancing running mate to Martin Van Buren, a dandyish New Yorker accused of wearing corsets.

But Johnson had his own baggage. He took a slave as his common-law wife and escorted his two mulatto daughters to public functions. This enraged Southern congressmen, who almost denied him the vice presidency. Once in office, Johnson succumbed to chronic debts and decamped for Kentucky, where he ran a hotel and tavern and grew so disheveled that an English visitor wrote, “If he should become President, he will be as strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled.”

Johnson never made it, but his successor did. Upon President Harrison’s death in 1841, John Tyler became the first VP to step into the executive breach. Dubbed “His Accidency,” Tyler lived up to his mediocre reputation and became the first president not to run for a second term (no party would have him). The next three VPs to replace dead presidents also failed to win re-election. Millard Fillmore became arguably our most obscure president; Andrew Johnson, “shamefully drunk” at his vice-presidential inauguration, was impeached; and the corpulent Chester Arthur, who served 14-course meals at the White House, was dumped by his own party.

Sitting vice presidents proved disposable, too. During one 62-year stretch, none were nominated for a second chance at the second job. James Sherman broke this streak in 1912, only to die shortly before the election. President Taft didn’t replace him and ran with a dead man on the ticket. The vice presidency, Theodore Roosevelt observed, was “not a steppingstone to anything except oblivion.”

One reason so few VPs distinguished themselves was the mediocrity (or worse) of second-stringers chosen in smoke-filled rooms to pay off party bosses or secure key states like Indiana (only New York has provided more VPs). Another impediment was the office itself, which seemed to diminish even its eminent occupants. Charles Dawes won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping reconstruct Europe after World War I—only to wither as VP to do-nothing Calvin Coolidge. Dawes’ successor, Charles Curtis, was part Kaw Indian and made a remarkable rise from reservation boyhood to Senate majority leader. Then, as Herbert Hoover’s VP, Curtis became a laughingstock, lampooned in a Gershwin musical, feeding peanuts to pigeons and squirrels.

Many presidents made matters worse by ignoring or belittling their understudies. Hoover didn’t mention Curtis in his inaugural address. Adlai Stevenson (the forgotten grandfather of the 1950s liberal of the same name) was once asked if President Cleveland had consulted him about anything of even minor consequence. “Not yet,” he said. “But there are still a few weeks of my term remaining.”

The energetic Teddy Roosevelt feared as VP that he “could not do anything,” and wrote an article urging that the role be expanded. But when he became president upon McKinley’s assassination, and then won re-election with Senator Charles Fairbanks, T.R. did nothing to break the pattern. The fiery Roosevelt disliked Fairbanks, a dour conservative known as “the Indiana Icicle,” and not only scorned the VP but undercut his White House ambitions. Four years after T.R. left office, Fairbanks was again offered a place on the Republican ticket. “My name must not be considered for Vice President,” he replied. “Please withdraw it.”

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that vice presidents began to emerge as more than a “contingent somebody,” or “nullity” in Washington (the words of Lincoln’s first VP, Hannibal Hamlin, a cardplayer who said the announcement of his candidacy ruined a good hand). As government rapidly expanded during the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt used “Cactus Jack” Garner, a veteran legislator, as his arm-twister in Congress. During World War II, Roosevelt made his second VP, Henry Wallace, a globe-trotting ambassador and head of wartime procurement.

Harry Truman, by contrast, served FDR for only 82 days and wasn’t consulted or prepared for the top job, a deficit he set out to correct as president. His VP, Alben Barkley, joined the National Security Council and cabinet meetings. Truman raised the salary of the office and gave it a seal and flag. Barkley’s tenure also bestowed an enduring nickname on the job. A folksy Kentuckian who disliked the formal “Mr. Vice President,” Barkley took his grandson’s suggestion and added two e’s between the title’s initials. Hence “Veep.”

The status and duties of vice presidents have risen ever since, along with their political fortunes. Four of the past 12 VPs became president; two others, Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore, just missed. In 1988, George H.W. Bush became the first sitting vice president to win election to the top job since Van Buren in 1836. The perks of office have also improved. A century ago, VPs still paid for their own lodging, car repairs and official entertaining. Today, they inhabit a Washington mansion and West Wing office, have large salaries and staffs, and merit their own anthem, “Hail Columbia.”


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