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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Bland Ambition of Being Vice President

By Tom Morrow

Who would want a job that has little significance with all the embodiment of “second fiddle?” Some would say being the U.S. Vice President is a sort of political punishment. As former VP John Nance Garner (under FDR) was quoted as saying, “Being vice president isn’t worth a buck of warm p….”

Since George Washington became our first President, there have been 12 Veeps who have made it to the Oval Office. Aaron Burr was charged with murder and treason; Hannibal Hamlin sat out the Civil War by hiding in a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off the Maine coast; Theodore Roosevelt attended law school while he was Veep for fear he otherwise wouldn’t have enough to do.

Richard Nixon became the first politician to receive a review in the entertainment magazine, Variety, for his famous “Checkers” speech on TV. Dan Guayle’s wife dismissed hints of scandal about a golf outing of that included young women by saying, “Anyone who knows Dan knows he would rather play golf than have sex any day.”

Steve Tally, author of Bland Ambition, (Harcourt-Brace, 1992) wrote in his opening remarks, “The vice presidency, it seems, is not survival of the fittest, but elevation of the mediocre.”

In recent years, beginning with the presidential campaigns of the 80s, the vice presidential nominee has been looked upon as the “attack dog.” They would be the bad guy, leaving the top of the ticket to be the good guy, so to speak. That doesn’t seem to be the case for this year’s campaign. In reality, most think of the vice presidency as not survival of the fittest, but elevation of the mediocre.

America’s first vice president, John Adams, was a founding father and Washington’s Veep. He probably was most unhappy in the position among all the others holding the second chair. Adams quickly realized there was literally nothing to do except preside over the Senate, which he found an utter bore. Washington, like many other presidents, did not include Adams in any major decisions.

If ever there was a scoundrel occupying the Veep’s job it had to have been Aaron Burr, the third man to hold the position. Adams was Washington’s number 2; Thomas Jefferson was Adams. Burr was defeated for the presidency by Jefferson by one vote. Burr had a running feud with Alexander Hamilton, himself a rather controversial character. When rumors began circulating (started by Hamilton) that Burr may have committed incest with his daughter, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. The secretary of the treasury was mortally wounded by the vice president, and he was charged with murder in New York City where Hamilton died. Years later, while still the Veep, Burr was charged with treason for trying to create a new country involving the original Spanish-held lands.
Some 14 of the Veeps have become presidents. They are: Adams, Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Filmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

The most overlooked and underestimated man to hold the Veep’s office was Truman. When FDR died April 12, 1945, Truman had to step into the biggest shoes in modern history. World War II hadn’t finished and the decision of whether or not to use the atomic bomb was yet to be made. Truman didn’t know about the bomb, in fact, he hadn’t been briefed on anything of importance concerning the war. To point out the little regard FDR had for his Veep, he had only one meeting with Truman before his death. Truman was completely in the dark. For a man who had only a high school education, Truman turned out to be one of our best presidents, making some of the most important decisions of the 20th century – namely to use the a-bomb on Japan, thus ending the war and probably saving more than a million lives.

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