- - Friday, June 28, 2013


We’ve heard and seen more about leaker Edward J. Snowden these days than Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. who, in the past couple of months, has vanished from the news scene. In the old days, this wouldn’t have been news. Vice presidents, whose only real responsibility is to preside over the Senate and break ties, were as scarce as hen’s teeth in the nation’s capital.

John Adams, vice president to George Washington, spent most of the year in his beloved home in Quincy, Mass.; Thomas Jefferson, No. 2 to Adams, loved the post because it afforded him plenty of time at Monticello for his inventions and gardening.

Even when you needed a veep for the first time there was a death of a sitting president, guess where you found him? At home. John Tyler was at home in Williamsburg, Va., on April 4, 1841, when messengers gave him the news that President William Henry Harrison had died. Tyler took a leisurely two hours to get ready for the trip to Washington, but there was no great hurry. He traveled via horseback, train, and boat, finally making the 230-mile journey in 21 hours.

The record for keeping out of sight probably goes to Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, who served under President Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841. A hero in the War of 1812, Johnson, by the time he became vice president, was so overwhelmed with debts that he decided to open a tavern-inn while he had a full-time Washington job. His private enterprise zone, however, actually pleased some observers, as illustrated by the following account:

“I stopped yesterday evening at Col. Johnson’s Watering establishment and remained until today. The old gentleman seems to enjoy the business of Tavern-Keeping as well as any host I ever stopped with, and is as bustling a landlord as the most fastidious traveler could wish.”

Although he loved to preside over the Senate and became a master of its rules, Thomas Riley Marshall of Indiana, who served as veep during both of President Woodrow Wilson’s two terms, was not seen much during his liberal amount of free time. He had fun socializing and talking about down-home things to which Middle America could relate: Sunday school, service on the local school board, good 5-cent cigars, and sauerkraut and baked beans.

Even during the midst of the Civil War, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who served under President Abraham Lincoln, found the office of vice president a “nullity.” Although as a U.S. senator he rarely missed a session, he found presiding over the upper house too boring. So he frequently handed his duties over to the president pro tem and headed back to Maine.

Of course, one reason vice presidents were kept under wraps was that they didn’t have an official home until 1974 when Congress designated the Naval Observatory for that purpose (and that’s only a “temporary” abode). Not until 1951 did the No. 2 men even get Secret Service protection. Congress took its time in drawing up the 25th Amendment, delineating the sequence of events in instances of incapacity or vacancies in the two highest offices. Ratification didn’t come until 1967.

It really wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that a sure way was found to keep vice presidents invisible. FDR, elected in 1932, settled on John Nance Garner of Texas as his second in command. During Roosevelt’s first term, Garner, a former speaker of the House, kept close ties with his Texas home as the New Deal unfurled.

By the second term, however, Roosevelt’s increasing turn to leftist policies soured Garner, who became an obstacle in the president’s path, whether the vice president was in Texas or Washington. So in 1935, the practice of vice presidents staying out of Washington by taking official tours was inaugurated. For his first trip, Garner was selected to represent the United States in a distant land, namely, at the inauguration of the president of the Philippines.

In 1906, writer Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” perhaps had the best insight about the vice president’s ecstasy and agony in being heard and seen:

“All that his grateful country demands fr’m th’ man that she has ilivated to this proud position … is that he shall keep his opinyons to himsilf. An’ so he whiles away th’ pleasant hours in the beautiful city iv Wash’nton, an’ whin he wakes up he is ayether in th’ White House or in th’ sthreet.”

So where’s Joe Biden?

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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