Everyone seemed to like Obscure Presidential Trivia a few Fridays ago and I have little doubt that there is more amusement to be had along those lines. For instance, how much do you really know about the illustrious history of the Vice-Presidency and the parade of losers who have occupied it for the past 230 years?
Former VP Thomas Marshall (1912-1920) of Indiana once was asked why his state produced so many VPs; counting Dan Quayle, the Hoosier State has now produced five. His response was that "Indiana produces the finest second-rate men" in the nation and is thus a breeding ground for VPs. He's not wrong, as the office has been filled by second-rate imitations of statesmen more often than not for more than two centuries. That is, when it was filled.
The fundamental problem of the Vice-Presidency is…well, there are a couple. First, it is historically a political graveyard. The idea of the VP as a future Presidential candidate in training is a recent one. Second, there's absolutely nothing to do. If you're the kind of lazy, unmotivated politico who thinks that going to the state funerals of Eastern European prime ministers is a dream job, then the VP is awesome. Such an uninspired attitude should – but doesn't – disqualify one from being a heartbeat away from the White House. Thus we see the fundamental dilemma of the office; it is simultaneously very important and utterly irrelevant. To wit, the VP might be called upon to command the nation in a world war at a moment's notice, a la Truman, yet the office didn't even have a Top Secret security clearance until Mondale insisted on it in 1978 (No, seriously).
So important was the office that it was not until the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 that we even bothered to replace the VP if he died or otherwise left the office vacant. James Madison, who killed off two VPs – George Clinton (no, not that one) and Elbridge Gerry (yes, that one) – spent almost his entire eight year tenure in the White House without a VP. Nobody noticed. The job was so irrelevant that in 1832 John C. Calhoun, VP under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, quit to go back into the Senate. Think about that. He just stood up one day and said "Fuck this. I want my old job back."**
"I am insane. Also, bored."
Some people get flowers, plaques, or gold watches when they retire. William King got the Vice-Presidency as a thank-you gift for his many years of service in government. In 1852 King was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a ceremonial position filled by the longest-serving member of the majority party. He had to quit that job when tuberculosis left him on death's door…so he was promptly nominated for the VP under Franklin Pierce. When Pierce won, King was too sick to show up at the inauguration. So he was sworn in – in Cuba – before returning to the U.S. and immediately dying 36 hours later. Thus the man remembered only for being the roommate and possibly "roommate" of James Buchanan basked in the power and glory of the VP for all of 45 days, for all of which which he was either in Cuba, shitty wasted on laudanum, or shitty wasted on laudanum in Cuba.
The Inauguration of William King
Alas, the office has one overwhelming benefit which trumps all the monotony and irrelevance – if you're lucky (or if the President is particularly unlucky) you get to be President. That is, unless you're Garret Hobart. Hobart turned down the Vice-Presidency in 1881. Had he accepted, he would have become President upon the death of James Garfield at the hands of an assassin. Instead that honor went to Chester A. Arthur. Hobart learned his lesson, though, and accepted the office in 1896. Then he died in 1899. Had he lived just 18 more months he would have assumed the Presidency upon the death of William McKinley, also struck down by an assassin, in 1901.
The moral of the story is, don't be friends with Garret Hobart. Death stalks him.
To be continued!
**May not be an actual quote