The curse of the vice presidency and legendary congressional hearing stunts

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama in December 2016.

This was excerpted from the July 30 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

(CNN)For much of US history, the job of vice president cursed the unfortunates who were saddled with it -- most notoriously John Nance Garner. But vice president for Joe Biden might be a job worth having.

For decades, the president's number two was largely ignored and limited to boring ceremonial duties: Before his death, Franklin Roosevelt didn't even tell Harry S Truman about the atom bomb. The indignity heaped on number twos has been encapsulated by Robert Caro in his most recent biographical volume on Lyndon Johnson — who was treated like dirt by the Kennedy brothers — and in the HBO comedy "Veep," when the hilariously self-serving Selina Meyer repeatedly and pathetically asks: "Has the President called?"
Some veeps did eventually find places among history's most significant presidents, like the 20th-century trio of Truman, Johnson and Theodore Roosevelt, who all succeeded dead superiors. The job has also improved in recent years: Though current Vice President Mike Pence appears to view his role as showering praise on his boss every time a camera is near, the three vice presidents before him were unusually influential: Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Biden himself had genuine authority and significant assignments.
    In 2020, the spot on the Democratic ticket could be even more attractive to ambitious candidates. Biden, who has promised to pick a woman, says he wants someone fit to take over if he couldn't reach the finish line, since he'd be the oldest president inaugurated for a first term. And as an ex-vice president himself, he wants a subordinate partner, not just someone to break Senate ties and go to foreign funerals. Given the crisis Biden will inherit if he wins, his vice president would get a hefty share of work — including high-profile trips abroad on Air Force Two and a chance to build her own brand.
      And it's hard to see a President Biden running for a second term that would begin when he is 82. So his vice president could automatically become the Democratic front-runner in 2024, and might even be able to avoid a prolonged primary campaign altogether.

        2019 vs. 2020

        Normally over 2 million pilgrims attend the Hajj. But this year, only around 1,000 worshipers were allowed to make the pilgrimage, after Saudi Arabian authorities imposed strict crowd control and hygiene measures. On Wednesday, pilgrims socially distanced around the Kaaba. It was a far cry from what the walk around Islam's holiest shrine normally looks like -- crowded with Muslims from across the world as shown below, from August 2019.

          From Trump with love

          Sometimes it's hard to spot the difference between the President of the United States and a Kremlin spokesman. Donald Trump's deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to be adequately explained, but it's undeniable that he often seems to be reading a list of Moscow's talking points -- especially when he's recently spoken with the ex-KGB man.
          On Wednesday, Trump confirmed to Axios that he had not raised reports with Putin during their phone call this week that Russia's military intelligence offered the Taliban bounties to kill US soldiers. Far from condemning the alleged behavior, he said many people considered it a "fake" issue. Then, in an extraordinary comment with US lives on the line, seemed to compare the scheme to US military aid to mujahedeen in the 1980s: "We supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too. ... I'm just saying we did that too," he said -- an equivalence that recalls his 2017 response to the assertion that Putin was "a killer" by a Fox News interviewer. "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" Trump replied at the time.
          Putin loves his macho photo ops, but Trump, who thinks the Russian leader is just "terrific," gives the Kremlin's image-makers a run for their money, repeatedly praising Putin's strength and "control" over Russia.
          Trump often also seems to advance Russia's national security interests as much as America's, and did so as recently as Wednesday by ordering thousands of US troops out of Germany, carving another divide in NATO. He's also still trying to get Russia back into the G7, after it was kicked out for annexing Crimea.
          All this may have been foreshadowed in 2018, when Trump stood by Putin's side at the notorious Helsinki summit and took Russia's word -- over the assessment of US intelligence agencies -- on election interference in 2016, telling the press: "My people came to me ... they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."

          'I might have put ... some of the virus onto the mask'

          Often seen flitting around the House without a mask, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert has now tested positive for the coronavirus. In an interview Wednesday with a Texas television station, he flipped the script, questioning whether he had contracted the virus from a mask on one of the occasions when he had wore it. "I can't help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, that if I might have put some germs or some of the virus onto the mask and breathed it in," Gohmert said. "I don't know."

          Congressional hearing stunts

          The US Congress has a vital constitutional role to hold the president and his administration to account. Over the years, moments of stellar parliamentary inquiry have changed politics and the world: The wartime Senate Committee on the National Defense Program chaired by then-Senator Harry S Truman, for example, investigated profiteering. In the 1970s, a Senate Select Committee's bipartisan probe unearthed key aspects of the Watergate scandal that eventually brought President Richard Nixon down.
          But just as often, congressional committees degenerate into stunts and tantrums. On Tuesday, members of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives struggled to keep it together during an inflammatory and rare appearance by Attorney General William Barr.
          Ohio's Representative Jim Jordan spouted a string of hard-to-follow conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation, then played spliced-together videos of violence in US cities meant to demonstrate an epidemic of leftist violence. He got into a spat with another combustible member, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, after he took off his mask -- and then turned on a dime to raise false claims about an Obama administration plot to target Trump aides for surveillance.
          Barr, performing for the President, and Democrats, with their own political incentives, staged vocal clashes. Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse tripped up Barr by asking if he stands by a claim that the White House fully cooperated with the Russia investigation. "I have to answer that question. ... I'm going to answer the damn question!" Barr said, as Neguse tried to cut him off.
          In another case of a friend of Trump's doing the President's work, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz accused Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday of being in league with the Chinese military, during a hearing of tech titans that included Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos.
          It's far from the first time that Republican posturing has interrupted stately proceedings. In a shameless photo op last year, two dozen Republicans stormed a closed-door witness deposition in the impeachment inquiry as they claimed -- wrongly -- that their party was being shut out of the process.
          Democrats have their own fair share of grandstanders. Last year, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee undermined an impression that his party was taking its new majority duties seriously when he showed up for a 9 a.m. hearing with a big bucket of KFC to protest Barr's absence. "Chicken Barr should have showed up today. ... It's a sad day in America," he said. The stunt backfired -- Barr's no-show has been forgotten, but everyone remembers Cohen's Colonel Sanders caper.
            You sometimes have to pity the witness. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat through 11 hours of Republican tomfoolery during a 2015 hearing that was transparently intended to damage her presidential campaign. But her eye rolls and temple rubs spawned viral memes.
            Sometimes the entertainment in congressional hearings is inadvertent, and exposes the body's most venerable members to ridicule as they catch up on the topic at hand. The late Senator Ted Stevens secured immortality when the Alaska Republican described the internet not as a truck to dump things on but as "a series of tubes." And in 2018, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah appeared to amuse Zuckerberg by asking how Facebook made its billions.