VeepStakes: “We’re Number Two!”


Vice President Dan Quayle. On the subject of his frequent mistakes and verbal miscues, his wife Marilyn once quipped, “What do you expect? He’s a blond.”

Would you like to be Vice President of the United States?  You’re probably better suited than many of the people who have held that high office.

The election is just a few months away.  Looks like Barack and Joe will be running together again, and we still don’t know who’s going to pair up with Mitt and run for vice president on the challengers’ ticket.

But whatever your political leanings, I hope you agree with me that the next person who will be a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world ought to be both of sound character and well qualified to step in, just like the Miss America runner-up. It hasn’t always been that way.

Perhaps that’s why so few sitting vice presidents get elected to the presidency.  It was more than 150 years between the elections of Martin Van Buren (1836) and George H.W. Bush (1988). Both of them lasted a single term as president.

You and I are more suited to stand first in line to succeed the president than many of those who’ve done so.  As Lord Acton wrote in his oft-quoted passage about the corruptive lure of power, “There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”  He might have been thinking of one or more vice presidents of the United States. Examples abound. Consider:

John Nance Garner

John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner

A Texan, he was vice president for Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms. He got the nickname after campaigning for the prickly pear cactus to be named the official state flower. It wasn’t – the Bluebonnet got the nod in that crucial political decision. Garner is often quoted as saying that the vice presidency isn’t worth “a bucket of warm spit.” Only he didn’t say “spit.” You can guess what the actual word was. He also called himself “the president’s spare tire.”

Okay, okay, at least Garner was qualified for the job, having been Speaker of the House. But you wouldn’t have wanted to invite him over for dinner. Labor leader John L. Lewis called him “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man.” That must have been partly accurate; during Prohibition he convened his “Board of Education,” a place where politicians of both parties could consume alcoholic beverages.

Liberals didn’t like him; he opposed FDR’s New Deal machinations and the plan to pack the Supreme Court.  Garner declared for president in 1940 but got nowhere at the convention.  FDR couldn’t let go and ran for a third term, picking Henry Wallace as running mate.

Schuyler Colfax

Schuyler Colfax, Financial Scandal Pioneer

Garner died at age 98, making him the longest-living vice president.  He and Schuyler Colfax – the coolest-named VP – who served under Ulysses Grant, are the only two Vice Presidents to have been Speaker of the House of Representatives prior to becoming Vice President.  That means that Garner and Colfax are the only people to have served as the presiding officer of both Houses of Congress.

Colfax, one of four veeps from Indiana, was another rogue. He was serving as Speaker of the House in 1865 when he declined an invitation to attend “Our American Cousin” with President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.  Colfax was one of 13 congressmen who took bribes in the Credit Mobilier scandal that took place in the Andrew Johnson administration.  The news of those sleazy dealings, associated with the building of the first transcontinental railroad – the “Big Dig” of its day – came to light in 1872 when Colfax was VP.  He was bounced off the ticket and didn’t run with Grant for the latter’s second term in office. His successor, Henry Wilson, died in office after soaking in a tub.

Levi Morton, Civil Rights Obstructionist

Levi Morton

Levi Morton was vice president under Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1993. He is a bit player in American history, but he might have become president had he accepted James Garfield’s invitation to run with him in 1880. He refused, and asked to be appointed Minister to France instead. Garfield – who had a superb background and might have made a wonderful president had he lived – agreed to the request. Soon he was assassinated by the screwball Charles Guiteau, who thought that he had been “passed over” for the job that Morton took.

Morton actually did a decent job as Minster to France.  In Paris, on October 24, 1881, he placed the first rivet in the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The rivet was driven into the big toe of Lady Liberty’s left foot.

When Morton was serving as VP, President Harrison tried to pass the Lodge Bill, an election law enforcing the voting rights of blacks in the South. Morton did not support the bill against a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and Harrison blamed Morton for the bill’s failure. He bounced Morton from the ticket and chose Whitelaw Reid as the vice-presidential candidate for the next election. They lost to Democrats Grover Cleveland and Adlai E. Stevenson.

Daniel Tompkins

Daniel Tompkins, Sad Case of a Good Man’s Ultimate Failure

Governor of New York from 1807 to 1817, Tompkins won re-election three times and once turned down an offer to become James Madison’s Secretary of State.  He was vice president for James Monroe’s two terms. During the War of 1812, he was one of the nation’s most effective governors. He organized the state militia, initiated the practice of conscription, and funded much of the militia’s operations when the state legislature would not do so. This financial generosity to his country proved his undoing. Tompkins took out loans and used his personal property as collateral.  By the end of the war he was owed $90,000, quite a fortune in those days.

When Tompkins tried to recover his loans from the state and the federal government, they both stiffed him. Litigation ran to 1824, the last of his eight years as vice president. His financial problems drive him to alcoholism and to embezzling schemes, and he often presided over the Senate while drunk.  It got so bad that Congress even docked his pay.

Thomas Marshall, Small Caliber but Funny Guy

Thomas Marshall

An Indiana lawyer, Marshall was VP for Woodrow Wilson, the supercilious and much overrated president, who was also once the president of Princeton University.  Wilson called Marshall a “small-caliber man” and wrote that a vice president’s only significance is that he “be may cease to be Vice President.” Marshall should actually have assumed the top spot after Wilson had a paralytic stroke. Instead, Wilson’s wife effectively ran the country.  Marshall had been in the dark about how bad Wilson’s condition was, but he didn’t want the presidency anyway.

He was a wit, though. It was he who stated, after listening to a long, blustering Senate speech on the country’s needs, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” When he left the vice presidency, he retired to Indiana and did not want to work anymore. His memoirs made that point, and added, “I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”

Richard Johnson, Disheveled Tavern Owner

Richard Johnson

Martin van Buren, successor to President Andrew Jackson, was a foppish New York dandy who was accused of wearing corsets. To “balance” the ticket, they picked Kentuckian Richard Johnson, who tried to claim credit for slaying the Indian chief Tecumseh. That gave rise to a campaign slogan: “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Col. Johnson killed Tecumsey.”

Johnson once petitioned Congress to drill “the Polar regions” to see if the Earth was hollow. He also alienated Southern Congressmen by taking a slave as a common-law wife and escorting his two mulatto daughters to official functions. He ran up many debts as vice president, so he fled to Kentucky and ran a hotel and tavern. His appearance was so unkempt that an English visitor wrote, “If he should become President, he will be as strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled.”

“His Accidency” John Tyler, and Others Who (Briefly) Moved Up

Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office. He became the first president not to run for a second term. No party wanted him.  Millard Fillmore, who moved in after Zachary Taylor died, fared no better when he tried to run again. It was he who appointed Brigham Young governor of Utah Territory. Andrew Johnson, disastrous second vice president under Abe Lincoln, was drunk at his vice presidential inauguration.  Chester Arthur, who took over for the assassinated James Garfield, was the presidency’s premier gourmand. He served 14 course meals at the White House.  His party dumped him too.

Vice Presidential One-Liners

Thomas Jefferson called his vice presidency under John Adams “a tranquil and unoffending station” and spent most of his time at Monticello. Adlai Stevenson, vice president to Grover Cleveland, was asked is the president ever consulted him on anything. His reply: “Not yet, but there are still a few weeks of my term remaining.”

Senator Charles Fairbanks of Indiana was Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president. T.R. did his best to foil Fairbanks’ career ambitions, dubbing him “the Indiana icicle” and undercutting him at every opportunity.  Four years after Roosevelt left office, Fairbanks was approached again for a possible vice presidential run. His answer: “My name must not be considered for Vice President. Please withdraw it.”

Hannibal Hamlin

Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Lincoln’s first running mate, was an avid card-player. He said that the announcement of his candidacy “ruined a good hand.”

Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s vice president, was no friend of the Kennedys.  They called him “Uncle Cornpone.” Nelson Rockefeller, VP under Jerry Ford, said “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”

And then there’s Bush I’s vice president Dan Quayle, who once spelled the name of a popular food “potatoe.” He also butchered the slogan of the United Negro College Fund and earned a spot in Bartlett’s, saying “It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mind.  Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful.”

Source for most of the information in this post is the July/August issue of Smithsonian magazine. If you’d like to know more of the stories behind the stories of our country’s vice presidents, you might want to check out the Vice Presidential Learning Center in Dan Quayle’s home town of Huntington, Indiana. It’s the only museum dedicated to vice-presidential history and memorabilia.

The Center’s former marketing slogan: “Second to One.”

2 Responses to “VeepStakes: “We’re Number Two!””

  1. W. Brown Says:

    ” It was more than 150 years between the elections of Martin Van Buren (1836) and George H.W. Bush (1988)”

    Wasn’t Richard M. Nixon Vice President under D.D. Eisenhower ?.

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