Wednesday, October 17, 2007

6 Terrible Vice Presidents

A lazy list, but no one's posted in a month, and I'd like to keep this thing going. It seems to be a law of American politics that there can be no great Vice Presidents, only unmemorable or awful ones. Surely it has to do with the structure of the job. Anyway, here's a haphazard list of six of the worst, in rough (but probably not comprehensive) order:

6. William Rufus King (VP to Franklin Pierce, 1853). Probably the most important qualification for Vice President is staying alive--aside from hanging out in the Senate and breaking the occasional tie, that's really all a VP is supposed to do. And yet seven Vice Presidents have died in office -- more VPs than actual commanders-in-chief, even though to my knowledge no has ever seriously attempted, let alone suceeded in, assassinating a Vice President. A VP dying in the middle of a term is an odd and frustrating kind of quirk -- a little like when a backup quarterback has to go on injured reserve for some kind of off-the-field accident. Anyway, King is the worst of the dying VPs: he managed to stay alive in office for just over a month. Also, he helped fuck up a decisive Quizzo question for John, Drew and I at the Bards one night. Fucker.

5. John C. Calhoun (VP to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, 1825-1832). Calhoun was the only Vice President to serve under two consecutive and hostile administrations. He was also the only Vice President to be loathed by two consecutive and hostile administrations. He scores high on the terrible meter for leading the almost-traitorous nullification movement while still a sitting VP, and for coming off like a major league asshole to nearly everyone in politics who wasn't one of his South Carolina flunkeys.

4. John C. Breckinridge (VP to James Buchanan, 1857-1861). Calhoun was a near-traitor while in office, but Breckinridge did him better by becoming an actual traitor immediately after leaving office. The only VP (aside from John Tyler, who was also a President, and hence doesn't really count) to join the Confederacy, Breck spent most of the war as general in the CSA army. The fact that he was by most accounts an incompetent politician-general mitigates his perfidy, but doesn't erase it.

3. Spiro Agnew (VP to Richard Nixon, 1969-1973). As a native Marylander, I have this to say to Spiro Agnew: fuck you! And fuck Roger "Dred Scott" Taney, too. Unless Paris Glendening leads a miraculous dark-horse movement to steal the Democratic nomination in '08, those two chuckleheads will remain Maryland's greatest actors in national political history. Oh, OK, Thurgood Marshall at #3 helps us somewhat, but Spiro was still a total dickhead who deserves the everlasting condemnation of all fellow Marylanders.

2. Aaron Burr (VP to Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1805). He killed a guy, while in office. As Vice President, he fucking capped a dude in the chest and killed him. And not just any dude -- a fucking legitimate, top-five, real-deal Founding Father. Is that terrible, or just really badass? Why aren't there more gangsta rap songs dedicated to Aaron Burr?

All right, all right, committing murder while Vice President is pretty awful, especially when I don't think he really needed to do it. Running from the law and committing treason (even feckless, hopeless, ineffectual treason) immediately afterward is bad, too -- not to mention the whole attempt to get himself elected, bogusly, over Jefferson. But it's hard to hate Burr too much because he was such a charming, amoral rake, and Gore Vidal wrote such a readable book from his perspective, stuffed with vicious-but-plausible insights like the idea that George Washington had the lower body of a large, awkward woman. #2 seems like the right spot for him.

1. Dick Cheney (VP to George W. Bush, 2000-2008). The most powerful VP of all time. Which I guess could be a good thing, if he weren't actually an evil fucker from planet Destructo. The temptation is to make Burr #1 most terrible, but in the larger perspective of history, Burr wasn't really more than an opportunistic pipsqueak who didn't accomplish much one way or the other. Cheney, on the other hand, has accomplished a giant fuckload of irreperable harm. Even if he has worse aim with a gun.


Akshay said...

No Dan Quayle, the standard bearer for our modern reverse meritocracy?

Matt K said...

Wow. I totally forgot Quayle. Although when you think about it, Quayle seems like a breath of fresh air compared to Cheney, and in fact his vice presidency likely produced more humor than harm.

Although I guess you're right, he did sort of set the template for Bush, which is pretty sinister.

Paul Morton said...

Hey Matt,

You're much better versed in history than I am, so I thought I might suggest another project as a companion. It's hard to come up with the best vice-presidents as the office in and of itself lends very opportunity to ever do something great. But it does seem that the office has had more interesting, quirky occupants than the presidency. I'm thinking of Henry Wallace as one example, a one-time Stalinist sympathizer who woke up to the horrors of communism in 1952, seriously pursued Eastern religion well before it was cool, and made some serious contributions as an agronomist. Who else can you come up with?

Matt K said...

Yeah Paul, that's actually a tough one. Henry Wallace was an interesting guy. Col. Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, Van Buren's VP, claimed to have killed Tecumseh and lived openly with a mulatto slave woman for many years. I have it in my head that the scurrilous Whig press at the time referred to him as "Black Dick," but quick google-research turned up zero evidence for that claim.

Otherwise, the VPs of the antebellum era -- which I know best -- were largely villains, future presidents, or complete non-entities, like Polk's VP George M. Dallas, or Lincoln's first VP, Hannibal Hamlin. Looking ahead into the 20th century, one of my grad school professors never brings up Wilson's VP, Thomas Marshall, without noting that he made famous the phrase, "What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar." Shades of Warren G. Harding, there.

I supposed you'd have to have a final late 20th C category for "Well Meaning Liberal VPs Who Were Utter Flops As Presidential Candidates." Hubert Humphery, Walter Mondale, and Al Gore -- nice fellows all -- head that list. Gore is probably the most interesting of the three... but any list that puts Gore as the most or second most interesting figure in 200+ years of history is a list of some remarkably uninteresting people.