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’s 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?
Lott: Nixon as vice president was probably the most exciting vice president we’ve ever had. You have the crisis leading up to him becoming vice president in the first place, where a slush-fund came to light and the Eisenhower people wanted to dump him from the ticket, and he gave the famous Checkers speech in which he bared his soul to the American people. They responded very well to that and flooded the Eisenhower people with letters saying keep this man on the ticket.
And then as vice president, I don’t know of any other vice president who’s almost been torn limb from limb on a foreign visit, and that’s what almost happened to him in Venezuela. A bunch of Commie protesters tried to knock his car over when he was on the way to a wreath-laying ceremony. Nixon had them divert the car and not go to the ceremony, which was a good idea. Police later found a bunch of Molotov cocktails under the stoop of one of the houses close to the square [where the ceremony was being held]. He was then stuck in the U.S. embassy for a bit, and Eisenhower almost ordered the U.S. invasion of Venezuela, in an operation called — and I am not making this up — “Operation Poor Richard” to get him back.
NRO: If you’re running for president, what do you look for when selecting a vice president?
Lott: From a president’s perspective you don’t want someone to overshadow you. Michael Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen as his vice president, which was a really bad call because a lot of people said, “Why is he at the bottom of the ticket?” And actually, Quayle ended up being a better vice president in that regard.
Reagan went with Bush, who was relatively obscure, over Ford because Ford basically demanded a co-presidency. That was a very good call on his part. I’m sure you remember what Alexander Haig said after Reagan was shot. The “I’m in charge here” remark is very famous. What’s much less well-known is that George Bush was coming back to the White House at the time and they wanted to get him in there very quickly, and helicopter him straight in and Bush refused. His adviser asked him, “Why not?” and he said, “Only the president lands on the South Lawn.”
NRO: Based on your historical review, what advice would you give the people currently running for president about who they should pick for the number-two slot?
Lott: It used to be you would try and get a vice president to deliver a state or send a message. This is probably going to be a hard-fought, close election and if I were a Democrat I would look for a favorite son of a state that could be tipped in their favor. And if I were a Republican I would also be looking at poachable Democratic states.
As for message, what the Democrats should be saying is “We’re not that liberal” and should do that by putting up a conservative southern governor — someone like Phil Bredesen of Tennessee would be a good idea.
Now John McCain — my advice for him would be don’t pick a vice-president. Leave it up to the Republican convention, they’ll likely do a better job than you will. [Laughs.]