Historically, the vice presidency has been one of the least respected offices in the U.S. government, despite its lofty status. No less a vice president than John Adams lamented his term in the office, noting, “I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
Perhaps more famous was the way that the office was dismissed by FDR veep John Nance Garner, who referred to his decision to take the job as “the worst damn fool mistake I ever made.” Later, when another famous Texas Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, sought out Garner’s opinion on whether to pursue the job, Garner told LBJ the job wasn’t worth a “warm pitcher of [micturated fluid].” The comment was famously bowdlerized by the newspapers as a “warm bucket of spit.”
Hence the title of Jeremy Lott’s immensely entertaining new volume on the vice presidency, The Warm Bucket Brigade
. Lott has contributed to over a hundred magazines and newspapers around the world and is also the author of In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue. National Review Online
Mark Hemingway recently discussed the book with him, asking what writing it taught him about the vice presidency — and about the vice presidency in the current campaign.
NRO: The book is very amusing and informative, you struck a tone that’s informative but decidedly less serious than your typical history. Why did you take that approach?
Lott: I read a lot of history about the vice presidency and there just wasn’t anything that spoke to non-wonks. There were a few funny joke books, but nothing that also said anything serious.
NRO: As the title of your book indicates, the vice presidency has traditionally been something of a national joke, and yet you note the office is becoming more powerful. Why?
Lott: Part of it is just the history of the office. It’s got a pretty good track record of making presidents. Fourteen of 43 presidents were originally vice president, and that’s a pretty big number. Another reason is that there is a very vague job description for the vice presidency, so it’s something that the occupants of that office can make of it what they will. The government just has a tendency to expand over time so the vice presidency has just grown significantly.
NRO: In your estimation, who were the most useless vice presidents? The most effective?
Lott: There were a lot of pretty useless vice presidents. I tried to skip over them as much as possible. [laughs] I think John C. Calhoun was pretty useless as a vice president for Andrew Jackson. He basically followed Jackson and quit early to take a Senate seat.
The more effective vice presidents? Obviously, Dick Cheney is a good example, as was Walter Mondale. He had Carter’s ear and very few things happened in the White House without his input. As was Walter Hobart, who convinced McKinley to be in favor of the Spanish American War, and ruled the Senate with an iron fist and actually helped inaugurate our long adventure in the Philippines by casting the tie-breaking vote refusing to give the Philippines its independence.
NRO: Okay then, who was the most exciting?