Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate in this year’s presidential election and grabbed headlines across America. But American politics has a long history of far less successful Vice Presidential choices:
John McCain, a war hero, an independently-minded Senator, a man who seemed to embody the gentlemanly, principled wing of the Grand Old Party, further distinguished himself with his magnanimous, worldly 2008 Presidential campaign against Barack Obama – on several occasions even coming to the explicit defence of his opponent when confronted with racially-charged statements that Obama was somehow frightening or “un-American”. But, where McCain, despite losing, further increased his stock with the American people, his running mate Sarah Palin achieved the opposite.
Palin struggled to come across as competent, proudly stated she was well read because she read a daily newspaper. Largely unknown outside of her home state of Alaska – from which, she claimed, she could see Russia – some of the criticisms of Palin’s folksy style smacked of elitism. But it still did damage, undermining McCain’s judgment.
Some angry Republicans pinned their loss on Palin. But McCain himself responded with his trademark dignity, noting in his concession speech that she was, “An impressive new voice in our party for reform and the principles that have always been our greatest strength.”
Spiro Agnew served as Richard Nixon’s Vice President during his first term, and joined him again on the 1972 ticket.
In a neat, ironic twist, Nixon always harboured doubts about his running mate – but Agnew was popular with right-wing conservatives, and an effective attack dog. When the Nixon administration was accused of corruption, Agnew described Nixon’s opponent George McGovern as a “desperate candidate, who can’t seem to understand that the American people don’t want a philosophy of defeat and self-hate put upon them.”
Not long after Nixon’s re-election Agnew faced a barrage of charges, including fraud, tax evasion and extortion. He resigned in disgrace in 1973 and, in later life, wrote a novel about an avaricious Vice President destroying himself.
The young Senator from Missouri seemed to have everything, and was confirmed by Democrat candidate George McGovern as his VP pick in 1972, after just a brief phone call.
Unfortunately, Eagleton had a secret. He had spent several periods in hospital with depression and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Rumours about his hospitalisations swirled; there was an attempt to blame them on a stomach problem, leading to further accusations of heavy drinking. Having promised to support him, a meeting with Eagleton’s psychiatrist convinced McGovern he’d need to find a replacement.
Whether things would be different now, we can’t say – sadly, despite significant changes in attitudes towards mental health, a bipolar candidate for such a senior position in a American life would face similar stigma. Eagleton stepped down after just 18 days on the ticket.
Bush, Senior’s Vice President became famous for maladroit quips which would make Bush, Junior look like a master of rhetoric. “One word sums up the responsibility of any vice president,” Quayle famously remarked, “and that one word is ‘to be prepared’.”
Fair’s fair: the former Senator from Indiana was always prepared… to make a fool of himself. “Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things,” he noted – and it did.
Certainly, he understood elections: “A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls,” he said, wisely. And nobody could doubt his education – Quayle held a Doctorate in Law, although that didn’t stop him, on one occasion, trying to explain to a young child that ‘potato’ is spelt with an ‘e’.
Quayle became an increasing liability during the 1992 election, which the Republicans went on to lose, proving the gauche VP’s maxim that “if we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure”.
Not that Quayle ever lacked optimism. “You all look like happy campers to me!” he once told an audience of American Samoans. “Happy campers you are, happy campers you have been, and, as far as I am concerned, happy campers you will always be.” Well… quite.
Whilst the significance of the Vice Presidency has grown over time, Thomas Marshall, who served in the office for 8 years between 1913 and 1921, did not hold it in high regard. Well-liked less for his political achievements than his droll wit, Marshall openly acknowledged the insignificance of the position – and promised to live up to that insignificance. When briefly put in charge of the cabinet whilst Woodrow Wilson travelled to Europe, Marshall accepted the duty reluctantly; he would go through the motions of leadership, but was unprepared to accept responsibility for what happened whilst the President was away.
The key, Marshall believed, to discharging his duties effectively, if begrudgingly, was to nab himself an office with plenty of room to put his feet up and smoke – and he went about this hunt with unusual verve.
Whilst a good cigar was important to Marshall, his personal safety was not. He told his bodyguard he was wasting his time, as nobody ever tried to shoot a Vice President; when somebody did attempt to kill Marshall, he shrugged it off, revealing that he’d been receiving death threats from “cranks” for weeks but had just thrown them away, and turned down a beefed-up security detachment.
“Indiana is the mother of Vice Presidents,” he remarked of his appointment, “home of more second-class men than any other state.” When his successor, the similarly droll Calvin Coolidge, took the position, Marshall sent him a note: “Please accept my sincere sympathies.” Those were the days.