Ah, the office of the vice-president, the penultimate frontier in American politics! One would believe, intuitively, that being the theoretically second-most powerful person in the world’s most powerful nation would be a great boon, a stepping stone to immortality, a gateway to intrigue and ambition. Alas, this is not so. The office is, in fact, the constitutional equivalent of the appendix, its function confusing, antiquated and often redundant. It’s role is not entirely clear, leaving the office-holder a cipher (Garner. Eh, 80% of vice-presidents, now that I think about it), a vague administration fix-it man (Mondale), surrogate president (Cheney) or national laughingstock (Quayle.) It is no surprise then, that the vice-presidency is where promising careers and political ambition are put to pasture. It is even less surprising that a number of America’s great statesmen have historically turned the office down. “I do not intend to be buried,” Daniel Webster said when given the chance to balance the Whig Party ticket, “until I am dead.” So, in honor of this office, let us explore the seven most qualified (nay, over-qualified) men to have held this puzzling, antiquated, and counter-intuitive public office.
- Thomas Jefferson (1797-1801): The nation’s second vice-president brought an impressive set of credentials to the office: he had been Governor of Virginia, authored the Declaration of Independence, served ably as a minister to France, and held office as the inaugural Secretary of State. He was catapulted to the vice-presidency by the original constitution’s provisions, which made the office a consolation prize to the runner-up in the electoral college, rather than to a designated veep running on an organized ticket. As vice-president, Jefferson did little more than manage the opposition to the president, John Adams. He coordinated Democratic-Republican newspapers attacks and churned the gossip mill through private letters. Unscrupulous? Perhaps, but it may have helped him win the presidency in his own right in 1800.
- Joe Biden (2009- ): In a senatorial career that spanned dizzying heights (his handling of the Robert Bork nomination) and jaw-dropping lows (his handling of the Clarence Thomas nomination), Biden nonetheless earned a reputation as a workhorse with a a mastery of judicial and foreign policy issues. I have often said that while John McCain saved the nation from pork-barrel, Joe Biden saved the nation from Bork peril. Indeed, his deep policy expertise belies his frequent gaffes. When Benazir Bhutton was killed in 2007, the first call Pakistan’s government made was not to George W. Bush, not to Condoleeza Rice, but to the chair of the Foreign Relations committee, Joe Biden. Running for the presidency in 2008, he withdrew after earning only 1% in the hotly contested Iowa caucuses, hindered by a wholesale lack of funds and media attention. Nevertheless, he had been in the Senate for 36 years, one of the longest tenures in the body’s history, when he was tapped as a running mate by Barack Obama. Obama was 11 years old when Biden first entered the Senate.
- Alban Barkley (1949-1953): Rarely remembered today, Barkley was a Kentuckian fixture in Congress, with 14 years in the House and 22 years in the Senate– including quite a few as majority leader– under his belt. Seeking the presidency in 1948 after inheriting the office from FDR, Harry Truman sought Barkley to run with him. Despite a rather unbalanced ticket of two congressfolk from the border-south (Truman was a Missourian), they famously beat front-runner Thomas Dewey. In office, it was Barkley who first called the office of vice-president the “Veep”, a term we still use today.
- Nelson Rockefeller (1974-1977): Nelson Rockefeller had spent the 1960s trying to get elected president to no avail. Two young in 1960, lacking Goldwaterish foot soldiers in 1964, and too liberal for the party mainstream by 1968, Rockefeller was, ironically, offered the vice-presidency by the only un-elected president in our country’s history, Gerald Ford. By that time, Rockefeller had achieved enormous success as governor of the nation’s then-largest state, New York, for 16 years. Rockefeller died in a call girl’s arms in 1979.
- Dick Cheney (2001-2009): Cheney earned his first big break in the Ford White House, serving as a chief of staff while only in his mid-30s. Working through the 80s as the at-large congressman from Wyoming, Cheney was elevated to Secretary of Defense by the first President Bush (see #6) after his first choice, conservative Texan John Tower, was rejected by the Senate. (This is virtually the only time in modern American history that the Senate rejected a presidential appointee who was himself a sitting senator.) Cheney spent the 90s chilling out at Halliburton and the Project for a New American Century until serving on George W. Bush’s vp search committee, whereupon he stalwartly nominated himself for the office.
- George H. W. Bush (1981-1989): Bush made a credible run for the Republican nomination himself in 1980, doing well among New England Republicans and party moderates, even calling supply-side financial policy “voodoo economics.” In a year that would be remembered for its ascendant conservatism, this was not the best strategy for success. On falling short, he was somewhat grudgingly offered the vice-presidential slot by Ronald Reagan. Before all of this, though, Bush was an influential young Texan congressman before serving tenures as CIA director, Ambassador to China, and Ambassador to the United Nations, racking up mad foreign policy credentials, y’heard, son?
- John Nance Garner (1933-1941): Garner had been a fixture in the House of Representatives for 30 years– two as Speaker of the House– before running for the Democratic nomination in 1932. Although a Texan “favorite son” candidate, he could not secure enough votes, so he cut a deal to put FDR over the top in exchange for the #2 spot on the ticket. He came perilously close to becoming president instead of Roosevelt when FDR narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in Chicago before taking office. After the first eight years of Roosevelt’s presidency, however, Garner was dumped in favor of Secretary of Agriculture and man-about-town Henry A. Wallace. In retirement, the man lived to be 98 (and was able to consult fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson when he became president). Despite all of these qualifications, Garner is best remembered for his damning indictment of the vice-presidency, remarking that the office “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”