It’s no vice being No. 2 at White House
REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT
Bill Kelter’s new book, “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance,” contains short bios of all the men who made it to the nation’s second-highest office, and a few who didn’t. The author is excruciatingly fair-minded about giving every No. 2 his due. Utterly forgettable veeps such as Rufus King and Nelson Rockefeller get as many pages as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Each chapter opens with a drawing by talented illustrator Wayne Shellabarger based on vice-presidential portraits and prominent pictures of the veeps (the drawing of a dour William Wheeler, um, graces the cover) and also includes more cartoony drawings, famous quotes and “Fun Facts” that serve as chatty footnotes. A thorough reading of this book is practically guaranteed to boost your “Jeopardy!” scores.
You also might enjoy it. Mr. Kelter is an economical writer with an ear for good anecdotes. Recounting Richard Nixon’s disastrous 1957 vice-presidential trip to South America, he writes that in Caracas, “the limo driver had to turn on the windshield wipers to clear away the spit that was coming from the crowd,” and in Lima, “the Vice President of the United States responded to a man who spat in his face by kicking him square in the shins.”
This conflict is captured visually as well. Mr. Shellabarger supplies a caricature of the angry Mr. Nixon roughing up the spitting protester. It’s enough to bring a broad smile to the face of the most hardened Nixon-hating cynic.
Readers should be aware that some of Mr. Kelter’s evaluations of U.S. vice presidents are out of step with those of many vice-presidential historians. Take the case of poor Thomas Marshall: Mr. Kelter rightly says that Woodrow Wilson’s vice president got a raw deal when Mr. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Rather than being given control of the government, as was his right, Mr. Marshall was informed that Mr. Wilson’s wife and close advisers had things well in hand and he wouldn’t be needed.
Mr. Kelter and most historians can agree that was unfair, but he goes further. He argues that the “highly competent, whip-smart” Mr. Marshall would have been capable not only of governing but, likely, of steering the post-World War I League of Nations treaty through the reluctant U.S. Senate. This in spite of the fact that Mr. Marshall told a government official at the time that it would be “a tragedy” for him to assume the duties of president and appeared almost panicked.
The book has a few factual mistakes that need to be corrected for later editions (Calvin Coolidge’s father, John, was not a “Massachusetts notary public”; he hailed from Vermont) - but not many. It’s a solid introduction to our nation’s No. 2s.
However, one huge flaw remains. Vice presidential historians tend to focus on either the forest or the trees, and Mr. Kelter is a tree person. He focuses on the individual stories of the vice presidents and fails to step back and appreciate the big picture. This wouldn’t be a problem except that Mr. Kelter’s one nod to the big picture is the well-worn notion that vice presidents are insignificant men.
Though that’s sometimes true, it’s nowhere near the whole story. In the introduction, the author acknowledges a “handful of anomalies,” including Vice Presidents Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Walter Mondale and Garret Hobart, but Mr. Kelter pretends these are rare exceptions. His coverage of some vice presidents is the worse for adhering to this old, tired stereotype.
So let’s kill it dead, once and for all: Fourteen of our (so-far) 56 vice presidents went on to become president. America’s VPs have signed treaties, pushed important legislation through Congress, lifted major causes out of obscurity and urged the nation into war. They have profoundly affected the history of this country, like it or not. You can read all about them in “Veeps,” but, please, ignore the subtitle.
• Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency,” published by Thomas Nelson.