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Author looks to honor VPs' 'history of insignificance'

By Tommy Andres, CNN Radio
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
5th October 1813: Shawnee chief Tecumseh (c.1768 - 1813) meets his end at the hands of Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson during the Battle of the Thames, Ontario, while fighting for the British in the War of 1812. Original Artwork: Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier. 5th October 1813: Shawnee chief Tecumseh (c.1768 - 1813) meets his end at the hands of Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson during the Battle of the Thames, Ontario, while fighting for the British in the War of 1812. Original Artwork: Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier.
Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson
Vice President John Adams
Vice Presidential Candidate Thomas Eagleton
Vice President Hannibal Hamlin
Vice President Aaron Burr
Vice President Spiro Agnew
  • The stigma of the nation's second-in-command goes all the way back to the job's roots
  • John Adams: "I am vice president, and in that I am nothing."
  • Sarah Palin isn't the only running mate blamed for bringing down a ticket
  • Many VPs -- including the current one -- have been known for their gaffes

(CNN) -- July 4th is Independence Day, but if Bill Kelter gets his way it also will be Vice Presidents' Day.

"You already have a holiday on the books, so there's not going to be a lot of red tape putting it through," Kelter says. "And if, God forbid, something should happen to the Fourth of July, Vice Presidents' Day can be there to step in."

Kelter is a historian and author of the book "Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance" who loves vice presidents so much that he painted their likenesses on the white checkered tiles in his bathroom.

Kelter says it's an exciting time in politics, the one occurrence every four years when people actually talk about the vice presidency. Mitt Romney is deciding on the other name that will join his on campaign bumper stickers.

But as big of a story as that is, the person chosen would join a long line of men drafted into a job that history has come to view as a bit of a joke.

A history of insignificance

John "Cactus Jack" Garner, the 32nd vice president, is probably best known for the phrase "Being vice president isn't worth a warm bucket of piss." Garner was speaker of the House when he ran for president in 1932 and was barely beat out by Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a consolation, he was offered the vice presidency.

Garner served two terms under FDR before an unsuccessful bid to beat out the incumbent for an unprecedented third term, and he bitterly said later, "I gave up the second most important job in government for eight long years as Roosevelt's spare tire."

He called the decision the "worst damn fool mistake I ever made."

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Garner isn't alone in this sentiment. Abraham Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, once complained he was, "the most unimportant man in Washington." Lincoln apparently agreed and booted Hamlin off of his second-term ticket and replaced him with Andrew Johnson.

Almost a century later, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked about Vice President Richard Nixon's contributions to his administration, Eisenhower said famously, "If you give me a week, I might think of one."

In fact, the stigma of the nation's second-in-command goes all the way back to the job's roots.

John Adams, America's first vice president, may be responsible for that precedent. Kelter said Adams fought hard to establish monarchical names for America's two highest leaders, suggesting titles like "His Majesty the President," "His Highness the President," "Master of the United States of America and Protector of Their Liberties," "His Mighty Benign Highness" and "His High Mightiness" among others.

When he was laughed at by the senators he would soon preside over, one of whom suggested the portly Adams be referred to as "His Rotundity," he slinked back, sulked and resigned himself to serving in a position he called, "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

He famously and more curtly said later, "I am vice president, and in that I am nothing."

The importance of vetting

Whether or not the job of vice president is truly considered a position of power, one thing is true: The selection of a candidate can boost or bust a campaign in a narrow race, and Kelter said vetting is crucial.

Political analysts argue that Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign failed to thoroughly vet Sarah Palin in the 2008 race, but Kelter points to another example as the most notable cautionary tale.

In 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern was heavily pursuing Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to be his running mate against the Republican ticket of Nixon and Spiro Agnew. But Kennedy didn't want the job, and at the last second McGovern found himself scrambling to come up with a name. Kelter says he found one on the very bottom of a list one week before the convention -- Thomas Eagleton.

Eagleton was a respected senator from Missouri at the time, but after his selection was announced, reports emerged that he had been hospitalized for depression a decade earlier and made reference to electro-shock therapy.

"There just wasn't as much sensitivity to mental health issues as you would have today," Kelter said.

When the rumors first surfaced, McGovern steadfastly declared he was "1,000%" behind Eagleton, but after only 18 days as running mate Eagleton was asked to step down.

Eagleton's past may have done less to damage McGovern's credibility than McGovern's perceived indecisiveness, but either way a race never expected to be that close to begin with was suddenly an embarrassing slaughter. McGovern and replacement running mate Sargent Shriver won only one state in the general election.

Political liability

Even on a winning ticket a vice president can go on to become a black eye for an administration.

In the election of 1836, Martin Van Buren's Democratic cohorts helped pair him with Kentucky Sen. Richard Mentor Johnson. As an Army colonel in the War of 1812, Johnson had famously killed Shawnee Indian Chief Tecumseh, and he had climbed the political ladder using the subsequent notoriety and the eventual campaign slogan "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson Killed Tecumseh."

Johnson had taken a slave he owned named Julia Chin as his common-law wife, which ruffled feathers in Washington. After her death from cholera, he bought another slave to replace her. But when she ran off with another man, Johnson had her caught and auctioned off as punishment. He then bought her sister and began a seemingly forced relationship with her.

Kelter said the doorkeeper of the Senate called Johnson "the most vulgar man of all vulgar men in this world."

Despite uproar, Johnson was put on the ticket in hopes that his battle hero image would balance out Van Buren's more effete persona. Whether it helped or hurt, Van Buren did end up winning.

Johnson went on to a dashingly unremarkable term as VP, with one notable exception: He proposed an expedition to the North Pole so that his beloved United States could be the first nation to drill to the center of the earth.

Johnson's political instincts were apparently on par with his scientific knowledge. He believed the earth was hollow. Van Buren apparently thought the same about Johnson's head, and was turned off so badly by the Kentuckian that he washed his hands of the very idea of a vice president. Van Buren ran for a second term alone and lost.

Strange bedfellows

Had he won, Van Buren wouldn't have been the only president without a vice. In fact, the office of vice president was so little thought of that it was vacant for 37 of the country's first 189 years. Part of the reason for this was how vice presidents were first selected.

When the country was in its infancy, the job was given to the runner-up in the presidential election. This made for some strange bedfellows, with two bitter rivals forced to wipe off the mud slung during a campaign.

This was an especially tough pill to swallow for Aaron Burr, who tied Thomas Jefferson with 73 electoral votes in the nation's third election. It took 36 ballots before it was decided that Jefferson would be president and Burr would be No. 2.

Because of the hard feelings on both sides, Jefferson never trusted Burr. He was politically shunned and the role of vice president was further marginalized.

While he was still in office, Burr ran again and lost his second race for president. He blamed political rival and fellow founding father Alexander Hamilton, who he believed had bad-mouthed him to the press and famously challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Duels were no longer legal in the state of New Jersey, however, so when Burr shot and killed Hamilton there he had to make a hasty getaway to avoid being tried for murder. So where did he hide out until the coast was clear? Back in his office in Washington, where he served out the rest of his term.

After Burr was out of office he moved to Louisiana, bought land and started assembling troops in case the Spanish tried to take the territory back. But word got back to Washington that Burr was actually using the troops to defend the land for himself and planned on starting his own country, one in which he could finally take his spot as leader.

He was tried a handful of times, but acquitted of all charges. Nevertheless he moved to Europe before returning years later to practice law in New York under an assumed name.

Burr was the last vice president chosen because of his second-place finish in the presidential race. The 12th Amendment was passed immediately after his term and opened the door for the presidential candidates to more or less select their own running mate.

The inevitable gaffe

But that hasn't necessarily made the choices any better. Kelter said Agnew is one of his favorite vice presidents. There have been plenty of VP gaffes over the years -- remember Dan Quayle's public misspelling of "potato" or Joe Biden's pronouncing passage of the Affordable Care Act as a "big f---ing deal."

Kelter said those pale in comparison to Agnew's loose tongue.

A first-term governor of Maryland and a virtual unknown on the national stage, Agnew was drafted ahead of GOP giants like Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. But Nixon, like many presidential candidates, didn't want to be outshined by his running mate, so he chose a man he called a "political eunuch."

After unveiling his surprise choice at the Republican Convention, the Washington Post wrote that the drafting of Agnew was, "the most eccentric political appointment since Caligula named his horse a consul."

Agnew was known for his epic speeches full of flowery alliteration. In fact, Kelter said you can find them on eBay.

But while phrases like "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "pusillanimous pussy-footers" might have made Agnew one of the most lyrically talented VPs, his lack of tact pulled him in quite the opposite direction.

Kelter said a Japanese reporter named Gene Oishi was sleeping off a night at the casino aboard Agnew's plane when he invoked one of the vice president's most famous faux pas. "(Oishi) was a little bit portly and he fell asleep on the plane," Kelter said. "So Agnew yells across the plane with all the press there, 'What's the matter with the fat Jap?'"

Apparently unaware that the people surrounding him were paid to record his comments, Agnew was taken aback when the statement appeared in the press the next day. He insisted he and Oishi were friends, and Kelter said Agnew tried to right his wrong by proving it. He would continue to greet Oishi on the campaign trail with a jovial, "How's the fat Jap today?"