Monday, April 16, 2007

Who are these guys?

Here’s a list for you to identify. No googling or yahooing allowed. Give yourself five seconds. If you don’t know right away, it’s unlikely to come to you. What do the following people have in common?

Richard Johnson
George Dallas
William King
William Wheeler
Thomas Hendricks
Levi Morton
Garret Hobart
Charles Fairbanks
Thomas Marshall
Charles Dawes

Give up? They are all former vice presidents of the United States. Of course, I only chose the least well known ones to make it harder. If Spiro Agnew and Al Gore were listed in it you would guess in a second. Even though all of them were “one heart beat away from the presidency,” it’s still akin to asking who lost the World Series in 1916 (the Brooklyn Robins, and I did google that).

These VPs were accomplished politicians in their own right, most of them lawyers, some of them bankers, but not anywhere good enough to make it to the big show. To be honest, their lives are just not all that riveting either. Nevertheless, there are some interesting things about some of them, even if it was dying.

Richard Johnson – During the war of 1812 he supposedly killed the famous Indian chief, Tecumseh in a battle. Johnson also took several slaves for common law wives during his life, making him very unpopular among many politicians, and raised his children as free persons.

William King – Dropped dead pretty much as soon as he got in office. King was actually sworn in while recuperating from illness in Cuba and never got back to the U.S. alive. President Pierce probably didn’t mourn much because his own last surviving son had recently been killed in a train accident before he could even take office. King was rumored to be a homosexual and a lover of James Buchanan, who lived with him for years before Buchanan became president. Don’t ask me. I wasn’t there and it’s very controversial.

Thomas Hendricks – What’s with these VPs and croaking? This one died about 8 months after taking office under Grover Cleveland. Otherwise as interesting as watching someone else’s kid at a third grade dance recital. I added him here to point out how many more VP’s died in office of natural causes than presidents. Only two presidents, but seven VPs.

Garrett Hobart – Yet another one who died in office, but at least he lived a little while and could warm a seat in heaven for his boss, McKinley, who was soon to die in an assassination. McKinley’s death came after he was re-elected with Theodore Roosevelt as his VP instead of the deceased Hobart. It is interesting that had Hobart lived a few more years and been re-nominated, we might not be talking about Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt today.

Thomas Marshall – Will someone tell me why Marshall’s statement “What this country needs is another good 5 cent cigar” became famous? Did someone read to or give to him a list of things the country needs? It's not the funniest or most brilliant thing I ever heard, but you wouldn’t expect great wit from Woodrow Wilson’s VP.

Charles Dawes – He actually won the Nobel Peace Prize while Calvin Coolidge’s VP, for his plan enabling Germany to pay its post WWI reparations to the allies.. No other VP has won it before or after, although three presidents have (T. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter), and former VP Al Gore has been nominated this year.

My favorite VPs:

Aaron Burr – Although the rest are in no particular order, Burr easily gets first place. He killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was actually indicted in NY and NJ for it while VP. He fled South and continued presiding as VP in the capital. Apparently, you could get away with that back then. He was never tried for the crime, and even returned to NY later in life. Of course, that was also after he was tried for treason a few years after the duel, and while out of office, but he won that one too, infuriating the president he had served under, Thomas Jefferson.

Richard Nixon – While still a candidate, Nixon had to explain taking $18,000 from a fund for his family’s use. He made a speech trying to explain why he did what he took the funds, including his personal financial information. That included talking about a gift of a dog they had received, which his daughter named “Checkers, which became the name of the speech. It was defensive, but actually went over pretty well. Not only did he become VP under Eisenhower, he is the only man in history who was elected to two terms as president and two as vice president. Despite resigning in his second presidential term, he also spent more time as either VP or president than any man in history including FDR. Al Gore would need to be elected to president twice in the future to beat Nixon’s record.

John C. Breckinridge. Served under James Buchanan in the term before the Civil War. He ran for president in a split party, and lost (you know who won). When the Civil War started, he joined the Confederacy in which he was a general and, near the end, Secretary of War.

John Tyler. The first VP who made it to President when the president died (William Henry Harrison dropped off soon after taking office – there campaigning slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”). He was sometimes called “his accidency.” He insisted that he was president, not just acting president, and the rule stuck, leading much later to an amendment in the U.S. Constitution making that officially the law. When the Civil War started, Tyler, long out of office, was elected to and accepted a seat in the Confederate Congress for Virginia. He died before further staining his former presidency by taking up the seat.

John Nance Garner, who served under FDR, said the VP office "isn't worth a bucket of warm spit." Hard to argue with that unless you are Dick Cheney.

It was pretty much John Adams’ sentiment too, as he wrote to his wife "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." One of the greatest American heroes, he had a miserable and unimportant vice presidency and possibly a more miserable presidency. The Revolution was really his “glory days.”

Henry Wallace, another FDR VP, was the closest thing to a communist that ever served the second highest office. Roosevelt would have stuck with him for his last term, despite his clear socialistic tendencies, if not for political pressure to get rid of him. That’s how we ended up with President Harry S Truman, instead of President Henry Wallace, when FDR died soon after his 4th term began.

Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency in a tax fraud scandal. Mostly, I love his calling the press “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The real credit must go to future New York Times’ treasure, William Safire, then a speech writer in the Nixon Administration, who coined the phrase for him.

Worst VP ever -- I would have to say Thomas Jefferson, who secretly but actively plotted against his boss, John Adams, whose administration he deemed a “reign of witches.” Breckinridge’s and Tyler’s joining the Confederacy may be treasonous, but, at least, were done after they were out of office.

I have already made some predictions as to who will be our VP candidates in 2008. Here are some more predictions despite how early in the game it is:

Democrats Republicans
Bill Richardson (NM)* Duncan Hunter (Calif.)
Mike Huckabee (Ark.)
Michael Steele (Md)*

* My personal preferences

I have already discussed why I think Richardson and Hunter might get the nod in prior posts, and won’t repeat them here, but Huckabee, an Arkansas governor, is a solid, folksy and very congenial conservative from the South who could help a Giuliani by balancing his non-genteel Brooklyn side or help McCain with conservative.

Michael Steele is a very likeable moderate Republican from Maryland, where he was lieutenant governor. He lost his 2006 Senate bid, but fared well in the debate. At least, he impressed me. He may be the best Republican pick overall, at least from a moderate’s perspective, and for the general election Hunter or Huckabee, both seeking the White House, would help McCain or Giuliani more with the far right of their party.

While it is a shame that this might matter, Steele is also black, which, in our wacky world, could be a way for Republicans to keep Democrats from claiming superiority in racial acceptance, should they nominate Obama for president. “Look, we have our black candidate, too.” Whether or not that happens, Steele would be my first choice for the Republicans.

If anyone has other suggestions or predictions, I’d like to hear them.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Your prejudice, based on the recent spate of founding father histories that paint Jefferson as some demon, rather than one of the first great politicians, is becoming annoying. EVERY VP in history plotted against their boss, that's how they got to be the VP in the first place! More importantly, how do you leave Andy Johnson off the interesting VP list. A reasonable VP who turns out to be one of our most controversial Presidents (was he impeached because he was corrupt, or was he impeached because he nobly stood up against a Congressional groundswell of corrupt intention called "Reconstruction"?).


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .