Chris Lamb: Bland ambition: A survey of veeps
01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 29, 2008
EIGHT YEARS AGO, George W. Bush, then the presumptive Republican candidate for president, put long-time family friend Dick Cheney in charge of finding a running mate. Cheney accepted and immediately went to work by looking around his empty office for the best possible vice-presidential candidate. We know what happened soon thereafter.
Bush-Cheney, of course, won the presidency in 2000 and again in 2004. Cheney, for his part, redefined the vice presidency.
“Most vice presidents are known for doing nothing. Dick Cheney set aside nearly 200 years of constitutional democracy in just two terms, and still found time to go fishing,” said Steve Tally, author of the book Bland Ambitition: From Adams to Quayle — The Cranks, Criminals, Tax Cheats, and Golfers Who Made it to Vice President.
Cheney, according to some pundits and scholars, made himself more pow-erful than the president. He is quite likely the most powerful vice president in American history. This is something of a dubious achievement and demonstrates how far we’ve come since the beginning of the nation.
John Adams, the country’s first vice president, famously said, “My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” A generation later, when Daniel Webster was offered the vice presidency, he replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
Within the coming weeks or so, both John McCain, the Republican Party’s candidate for president, and Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, will announce their prospective running mates. Both men insist that they will select someone with the qualifications demanded of a vice president.
But what are the qualifications for a job whose only official duties include breaking ties in the U.S. Senate and attending funerals for heads of state? “You die, I fly,” quipped George H.W. Bush, who served as vice president under President Ronald Reagan. The only clear qualification for a vice president, therefore, is that he or she not be susceptible to air sickness.
“A great man may be vice president, but he can’t be a great vice president because the office itself is unimportant,” said Thomas Marshall, who served as vice president under President Wilson in 1913-1921. Because of this, Tally suggests that the office tends to attract particular kind of politicians. “Bland ambition is not some moderate form of aspiration,” Tally says. “It is their lack of conviction that makes their ambition so bland.”
As Tally points out in his book, vice presidents have made their mark on American history in idiosyncratic ways. Aaron Burr, vice president in Thomas Jefferson’s first term, was indicted for murder while serving as vice president for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, served his country during the Civil War as a private in the Maine Coast Guard. Theodore Roosevelt attended law school while serving as vice president because he didn’t think he would have enough to do otherwise. Two other vice presidents, Schuyler Colfax, in President Grant’s first term, and Spiro Agnew, under Richard Nixon, were indicted for corruption while in office.
It’s tough to be taken seriously as a vice president. But presidents must be taken seriously. Therein lies the rub because if something happens to the president, the vice president ascends to the presidency.
George Herbert Walker Bush, after serving as vice president for two terms under President Reagan, ran for president in 1988. He selected as his running mate little-known Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, who tried to address concerns about his experience by comparing himself to President Kennedy. When Quayle did this during a television debate with his Democratic counterpart Lloyd Bentsen, Bentsen pointed out what would become painfully obvious: Quayle was no Jack Kennedy.
Quayle went from punching bag to punch line, becoming comfort food for the nation’s comedians during his term as vice president. The thought of Quayle as president, however, was no laughing matter — except to comedians. According to one popular joke, “The Secret Service was under orders that if anything were to happen to President Bush, they were to shoot Vice President Quayle.”
Chris Lamb is a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. and author of I’ll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes ( firstname.lastname@example.org).