Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: The evolution of the vice president in America
As the presidential race heats up, vice-presidential expert Joel Goldstein discusses how the role of the nation's No. 2 has changed over the decades.
As a satirist once observed about an American vice president, it's hard to play second fiddle when you don't even have a bow.Skip to next paragraph
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The Constitution just doesn't give vice presidents much to do except wait around for something unfortunate to happen. Not all VPs have minded much: One had enough spare time to run a saloon. Others devoted themselves to pastimes like writing history books, dreaming about getting a law degree, and bashing the guy in the White House.
How'd that happen? For better or worse, who are the most memorable VPs? And how many have shot a man while in office?
For answers, I called author Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor who's perhaps the nation's leading expert on vice presidents.
Q: One of Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidents famously declared that the office is "not worth a bucket of warm [bodily fluid]."
Setting aside his penchant for earthy language, was he right?
A: For most of our history, up until recently, Vice President John Nance Garner hit the nail on the head.
But the trajectory of the office has been in a positive direction. Since 1977, the beginning of the Mondale vice presidency, it has really been a serious office. All of the vice presidents from Mondale on have been integral parts of the executive branch, right in the midst of White House decision-making.
Q: In the beginning, vice presidents were runners-up in elections and sometimes didn't actually like the presidents they served with. And then they began to be tapped to balance tickets, right?
A: The 19th-century vice presidents were really ticket-balancers who were chosen by party leaders. Sometimes they had resumes that were totally implausible.
Chester Author was collector of customs at the port of New York, and I don't think anyone viewed him as presidential tinder. His job was to help carry New York.