Rogues’ Gallery

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted December 17, 2008 in Arts & Culture

The recent HBO series John Adams—and, more fully, David McCullough’s book from which it was adapted—suggests our first Vice President was a difficult, arrogant and unsightly man prone to be disagreeable with his wife, his children and his fellow countrymen. That’s only half the story. As told by writer Bill Kelter in VEEPS: Profiles in Insignificance, Adams was “frumpy in appearance, sour in demeanor, curmudgeonly, boring, prone to recurring bouts of depression, and affected a pompous royal air. He refused to wear false teeth after his own fell out, causing him to speak with a lisp.” How could Abigail Adams drop her knickers for such a man?

Whatever else Adams might have been—including the second President of the United States—he established precedent for the sideshow that’s became the American Vice Presidency. In his dismissal of the office he established how those who ascended there felt about it. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Adams” \l “cite_note-42″ \o “”  Adams complained. “I am Vice President. In that, I am nothing.” Or, as Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President John Nance Garner described the post, “(It’s) not worth a bucket of warm piss.”

Adams and Garner might be surprised to discover what the job has become under Dick Cheney, who’s been accused of running a shadow government and manipulating his boss like a puppet. But Adams at least wouldn’t have been so surprised to have heard Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin claim that the Vice-President is “in charge of the senate.” Adams himself took an overly active role in the Senate, sometimes out of necessity. He cast more deciding votes than any of his predecessors. He lectured—Kelter says “hectored”—the Senate on a variety of issues including what title the new office of President should carry (he favored “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of Liberties”) and was generally arrogant and dismissive in his badgering of the chamber. The lawmakers threatened to pass a resolution to silence him. Adams, taking the hint, showed more reserve during his second term. One doubts Palin would have been so easily silenced.

Kelter is an equal opportunity disparager, making fun of both the office and the men who have filled it. The men themselves, from Elbridge Gerry to Spiro T. Agnew, are a collection of drunks, murderers, graft artists and treasonous self-promoters. Don’t look to VEEPS to supply role models for America’s impressionable youth. But the book’s often colorful subjects (and occasional boring louts) do provide a historical cross-section that is truly American in its arrogance, perverted pursuit of profit, hypocrisy and out-and-out depravity.

There’s something decidedly humiliating about being second best in a country prone to chant, even in defeat, “We’re number one!” And dating back to its first years, that’s what the office was: the award for also–rans, those who placed second in the presidential contest. Even after 1804, when the 12th amendment to the Constitution required separate electoral ballots for President and Vice-President, the job gained no dignity. The result? George Clinton who had a habit of falling asleep during Senate debate, Daniel Tompkins who was often too drunk to carry out his duties and Richard Mentor Johnson who, when one of his slaves ran off rather than marry him, had her chased down and sold away at auction. Nor are the more honored of the lot, including Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson, all of who ascended to the presidency, given better treatment. Only Thomas Jefferson, whose affair with a slave isn’t mentioned, comes out looking worthy of the office. Kelter doesn’t belittle Al Gore, but savages his wife Tipper for her anti-rock lyric crusade.

Some of the funniest remarks are quotes Kelter digs up from contemporaries. “I never indeed thought him an honest, frank-dealing man, but considered him as a crooked gun, or other perverted machine, whose aim or stroke you could never be sure of,” Jefferson says of his Vice President, Aaron Burr, who once hacked off a man’s arm in a single swipe. “Anyone who knows Dan Quayle knows he would rather play golf than have sex any day,” said Quayle’s wife defending him against scandalous accusations.

Kelter stretches his prose at times to get a few laughs. But he is trumped by illustrator Wayne Shellabarger, who gives the VPs fair if stern portraiture but makes cartoonish comments with drawings of Veeps in negligees or passed out among bottles and paperwork. VEEPS isn’t a comprehensive study of the Vice Presidency and isn’t meant to be. Instead, it’s full of curious, often hilarious trivia that says as much about our fair country as it does the men who’ve been a heartbeat away from running it.

VEEPS: Profile In Insignificance by Bill Kelter, illustrated by Wayne Shellabarger; Top Shelf Productions, 296 pages, $19.95


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