“Joe who?” might be the response of a less than politically astute American if asked a week or so ago who occupies the No. 2 spot in the Obama administration. That wouldn’t have been a knock on Joe Biden as much as the way people tend to regard the second banana on a presidential ticket in an election year.
And, while Paul Ryan’s nomination as Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate is drawing lots of attention now, history tells us that vice presidents are not likely to be the deciding factor in the minds of voters when they step into a voting booth. That is, unless they have done or said something that can distract from a campaign’s intended message.
That almost happened the other day when Biden made a comment that a Romney victory will “put y’all back in chains.” It created enough of a stir that President Obama stepped in to defend his vice president and quell the controversy.
The truth, even though there has been a call by a former Republican presidential candidate for Biden’s replacement on the Democratic ticket by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is that campaigns are filled with exaggerations, embarrassing misstatements and distortions. They raise concerns at the moment, but generally are forgotten in the fog of campaigning a month later.
Also forgotten in the mists of history are most of the vice presidents. Does anyone recall George Clinton? He was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president after the death of Aaron Burr, and then served in the same capacity for the next president, James Madison. John C. Breckinridge, later a general in the Confederate army, was veep for James Buchanan.
Here are a few of the men who held the nation’s second-highest elective office and are remembered largely by historians and political academics today: Richard M. Johnson, George M. Dallas, Richard King, Hannibal Hamlin, Schuyler Colfax, Levi P. Morton and Garret Hobart. Several early presidents had no vice president.
Nine vice presidents ascended to the presidency upon the death or resignation of a president or later were elected to the Oval Office.
For the most part, most Americans might have trouble naming much more than a handful of the veeps. One of the reasons for that lack of celebrity may have been best (and most colorfully) summed in the assessment of John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said the office wasn’t worth a “warm bucket of spit.”