The Vice President: A Short History

Despite what the pundits have been telling us for a week or so — and all the yipping that went on last night — the vice president (not this one particularly) really isn’t worth that much.  His (or her?) job is to wake up every morning and ask the important question: “How’s the president feeling, today?”  After that, he can have a leisurely breakfast, read the paper, work in the garden or play on the Internet, if he likes.  Of course, if some second tier somebody dies somewhere in the world, he has to show up and look sad, or if some not-so-notable notable comes to Washington, he has to show up and look happy.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: “His emotional range must run the gamut from A to B.”  However, for the most part, the vice president’s time is his own.  Yet, even though the office is totally useless on a daily basis, it does serve an essential purpose: the vice president must be ready and able to run the country if the president can’t.  It’s kinda like the first runner up in a beauty contest.

Actually, originally, that’s the way it worked.  The vice president was the guy who lost the election.  Obviously, this wasn’t an ideal arrangement, even back in the day.  For example, John Adams’ vice president was Thomas Jefferson.  I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall when those two started tearing into the nation’s business.  After all, about the only thing they ever agreed on was when to die.  To put this into perspective, in this century, George Dubya’s vice presidents would have been Al Gore and John Kerry; Barack Obama would have been stuck with John McCain.  Just let that sink in for a moment.

Oddly enough, the vice presidency is not an automatic ticket to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue1.  Actually, it’s almost a political dead end.  Of the forty-seven vice presidents so far, only fourteen have ever gone on to become president.  Eight of them took office when their bosses suddenly died; one, Gerry Ford, became president when Richard Nixon resigned and only five have ever been elected independently (and one of those, Richard Nixon, had to run twice.)  In fact, most politicos regard the office with some disdain.  Daniel Webster, who was offered the vice presidency by two separate administrations,2 replied the first time by saying “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”  Likewise, John Nance Garner, who was, for a time, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”  Not much has changed since Garner’s time.

For many years, both parties either let the backroom boys choose their vice presidential candidate or threw it open to the convention floor.  Either way, there have been some spirited campaigns for this worthless office – John Kennedy in 1956, for example.  However, in 1976, Ronald Reagan ran into political trouble and needed a boost to try and unseat Gerry Ford during the primaries, so he named his running mate, Richard Schweiker, early.  It didn’t help: Ford won the nomination.  However, this has become the norm.  Now, all the campaigning for second banana is done in the backrooms, long before the delegates ever meet.

Also, for many years, being selected as a vice presidential candidate was sort of a consolation prize for not getting the Big Kahuna.  However, these days, vice presidents usually bring balance to the ticket, either geographically, politically or — twice — (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin) by gender.  Of course, there are some cynics who maintain that the vice president is chosen simply as assassination insurance.

Regardless, most vice presidents have done their jobs uneventfully and vanished into history.  And the nine who were called upon to fulfill their primary function have served adequately, if not spectacularly, with one notable exception: Theodore Roosevelt, who was so good at it, they put him on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

1BTW, some people think the vice president lives and works in the White House – he doesn’t.  Actually, up until the 1970s, the vice president had to find his own accommodations in Washington.  And it wasn’t until Jimmy Carter made some space for Walter Mondale that the VP even had a formal office in the West Wing.

2From the Pretty Darn Strange Department: If Webster had shut up and taken the job — either time — he would have ended up as president.  Both men who invited him to be their Veep died in office.

Barack Obama and the Great Debate

Okay, that’s it!  I’ve had enough!  The Obama apologists have finally jumped the shark.  The latest missive from the Our-Guy-Is-Never-Wrong school of journalism is maybe President Obama just doesn’t want to be president anymore.  Do you believe this?  It’s getting to the point where everything this guy does has some pure and saintly purpose.  He screws up one debate and suddenly we’re no longer worthy of his leadership.  It’s as if Obama were some ancient god who has grown weary of his bickering children (who continue to ignore his teachings) and more in disappointed than in anger, must now forego the redemption of the human race until mankind is ready for his message.  Or maybe Barack just operates on such a high plane of consciousness that ordinary human traits like fulfillment and ambition don’t apply to him.  I don’t know which it is, but come on, people!  Get real!

Last week, when they turned off the microphones on the Romney/Obama debate, the air pressure dropped in every newsroom in America as journalists, commentators and caterers collectively gasped in horror.   It was right out of the scene in The Man Who Would Be King when the High Priest of Kafiristan discovers that Danny bleeds red like everybody else and isn’t a god.   The priest raises his hand to show Danny’s blood to the assembled multitude, and for a full three seconds, they all stand there, stunned.   Such was the case last Wednesday.  The echoes in Denver took a long time dying as the interior monologue of every bicoastal opinionator was screaming, “Holy crap!  What just happened?”  When they shook themselves back to reality, the wailing was uncontrollable.  The guy from The Daily Beast was practically in tears, Bill Maher tried to slash his wrists with the sharp end of his tongue, and I’m sure Chris Matthews strangled at least one fact checker in abject rage on his way to the microphone.  From there, everybody east and west of the Continental Divide who wasn’t hanging onto something simply got buried in the Excuse-and-Blame avalanche.

Nothing was sacred.  One commentator said that Romney (the dirty cheater) had an unfair advantage because he’d had several recent debates during the primaries and Obama hadn’t had any.  Another guy blamed Senator John Kerry for being too easy on the president during their practice sessions because he wants to be Secretary of State.   They accused Romney of having notes on his handkerchief.  They blamed the format, the venue and the altitude.  Hell, at one point they even turned on Jim Lehrer and denounced him for being old, semi-retired and losing control of the situation – which, apparently, gave Romney yet another unfair advantage.

If I sound bitter, I am.  I’m absolutely fed up to the eyeballs with the cult of personality that surrounds this president.  He’s not Kim Jong-un for God’s sake!  President Obama puts his pants on, one leg at a time, just like everybody else.  He can and does make mistakes.  He has off days and bad nights.  He proved that, last Wednesday.  He is not all-knowing, all-seeing and all-wise.  And face it, folks: he is not now, nor, was he ever, America’s one-size-fits-all Glorious Leader.  And while I’m on the subject, just because I disagree with Barack Obama’s political philosophy, that doesn’t make me stupid, an insensitive moron or a witless dupe of some Republican propaganda machine.  I am just as aware of the issues as the next person and my opinion is just a valid as theirs is.

Here’s the deal: President Obama screwed up last week.  For whatever reason, he didn’t get the job done.  However, just because he didn’t meet the expectations of his supporters doesn’t automatically mean he was the victim of a plot, a conspiracy or Jim Lehrer’s gross incompetence.  Whether you like the guy or not, it’s time to remember he’s just a guy, trying to do his job the best way he knows how.  If you think he’s doing a good job, vote for him.  If you don’t, don’t.  But this never-ending beatification is getting really tiresome.

Election 2012: How To … Not Lose

It`s an open secret that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can win the 2012 American presidential election.  Both parties are such damaged goods that nobody beyond the diehards wants anything to do with either of them.  Unfortunately, they both can’t lose.  And remember what happened last time there was a tie?  They had to give Al Gore a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar just to get that world class whiner to shut up about it.  Meanwhile, the pundits are all stating the obvious and pronouncing that a small percentage of undecided voters in critical swing states and a Cleveland cab driver named Rajinder Gomez will wake up November 6th and hand somebody the keys to unlimited world power.  Not since the days of “Jerry” Ford — who became king of the world on the say-so of Michigan’s 5th district and Richard Nixon — have the needs of so many been pushed around by the whims of so few.   Alas!  If it ‘twere only that simple!  It isn’t.  Thus, with victory no longer an option, how can either party not lose an unwinnable election?  I thought you’d never ask.

I’ll start with the Republicans for no other reason than back in a more civilized time, I was one.  Call it old man nostalgia, but like David Frum, I live in hope of change.  For the GOP, the road to not getting kicked to the curb in November is basically a tricycle of awareness.

First of all, they have to figure out a way to get rid of George W. Bush.  The party handlers are doing a reasonably good job of channeling Ronny Reagan over top the Bushes (pere and fils) but Dubya’s still hanging around Romney’s neck like a Flavor Flav clock.  As an elder statesman, the guy’s an albatross, and, not to mix too many metaphors, he needs to be put out to stud or something.

Next, they have to start talking serious numbers — not that gabillion trillion crap that Ryan trots out every time he’s cornered, but real, everyday down-at-the-Piggly-Wiggly dollars and cents.  Everybody knows that even Congress doesn’t understand money after it gets to a billion.  Those numbers are just too big.  What local people want to hear is what’s in it for them.  The Republicans need to tell people just exactly how much extra folding money tax cuts will put on individual pay cheques.  And for those individuals who aren’t getting pay cheques these days, the GOP needs to specifically explain how there are going to be a lot more of those available in a Republican future.

Finally, the GOP needs to stay away from the cultural wars.  Let’s be honest: Republicans aren’t cool.  Every time they try to be, it just looks lame.  If this were high school, they’d be running the Science Fair and explaining the Latvian Gambit to the Chess Club.  The third wheel on the tricycle is — Don’t Go There – if you do, Jon Stewart, SNL and the girls on The View are going to beat your brains out.  The Republicans need to acknowledge they’re nerds — full stop — and hope that, in the end, everybody remembers to Vote for Pedro.

For the Democrats, keeping the Obamas at 1600 is a Yellow Brick Road of simplicity.  The powers that be need to gather everybody — from Barack on down — and say, “Shut up!  This isn’t rocket surgery or brain science, so don’t get confused.  We have one message — period.  Don’t deviate!  ‘All Republicans are crazy old white men who talk to chairs.’”  If the Dems do this and stay away from the economy, Obama’s drone wars, the leakiest White House since Richard Nixon and foreign policy, they can’t lose.  They need to round up the usual suspects — racism, sexism and homophobia — and play Pin The Tail On The Republican with them.  (Just as an aside, whereas racism and sexism are merely totally screwed-up attitudes homophobia is an actual illness.  Well played, Gay Rights!  Well played!)  This strategy has worked for the Democrats ever since Lyndon Johnson ambushed Barry Goldwater’s presidential ambitions in 1964 with a nuclear attack on that little girl’s daisy*.  Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to throw a few hater remarks around.  For example, Michael Moore (I don’t even have a simile for this guy) has already called the 2010 Republican Congressional victories a “tsunami of hate.”  Yes, I know.  It’s a pretty broad brush (even for Mikey) but labels stick, especially if they’re repeated often enough.  (Who said that?)  The Democrats need to hammer away at just how despicable the Republicans really are…all of them…in their souls…if they even have any.  If they do that, it’s guaranteed: four more years.

As I’ve said before, this is the weirdest election ever but somebody’s got to wi..wi..wi…not lose.

*For those of you who don’t remember 1964 you can see the TV ad here.