Great Moments in the History of the US Vice Presidency

Vice President Nelson Rockefeller greets US Senators, 1976

Say what you will about the men who have served as Vice President of the United States, they’ve been a lively bunch.  Just look at how incumbent Joseph Biden behaved at the single most important ceremonial occasion of his term in office so far, yesterday’s signing of the health-care reform measure:

Biden was only doing his bit to continue a fine tradition.  Biden’s immediate predecessor, that Dick Cheney, during his time in office not only responded to questions from a senior senator by telling him to “go f*ck” himself, but also shot a man in the face.  Cheney’s adventures in gunplay recall Vice President Aaron Burr, who in 1804  shot and killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Other Vice Presidents have also done their bit to amuse the Republic.  For example, Andrew Johnson was drunk when he was inaugurated as vice president in 1865.  Perhaps more disturbingly, Spiro Agnew was apparently sober when he publicly referred to a prominent Japanese-American as a “fat Jap” and when he explained his refusal to visit the Watts section of Los Angeles by saying that “When you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.”   J. Danforth Quayle sometimes seemed to be on a mission to make life easy for standup comics; how else can one explain remarks such as “It’s time for the human race to enter the solar system”; “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change”; “I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix”*; “If you give a person a fish, they’ll fish for a day. But if you train a person to fish, they’ll fish for a lifetime”; and “It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”
Not all vice presidents have been merely ridiculous.  Some have combined ridiculousness with signs of true dignity.  Richard Mentor Johnson, no relation to Andrew, served as vice president from 1837-1841, when Martin Van Buren was US president.  Richard Johnson’s great qualification for public office was his claim to have fired the bullet that killed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe.    The slogan “Rumpsey-Dumpsey, Rumpsey-Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecums-ee” gave more credit for a single lucky shot than any marksman had received since Paris planted an arrow in Achilles’ heel.
So much for the ridiculous part of Johnson’s life.  His personal life was where the dignity crept in.  In the words of the US Senate’s official history:
Johnson was reelected to a full Senate term in 1822 but in 1828 lost his reelection bid because Kentucky Democrats feared that controversy over his domestic life would jeopardize Jackson’s chances in the national election. Johnson never married. Family tradition recounts that he ended an early romance, vowing revenge for his mother’s interference, after Jemima Johnson pronounced his intended bride unworthy of the family. He later lived openly with Julia Chinn, a mulatto slave raised by his mother and inherited from his father, until her death from cholera in 1833. Johnson freely acknowledged the relationship, as well as the two daughters born to the union, and entrusted Julia with full authority over his business affairs during his absences from Blue Spring Farm.
This relationship was not without cost for Johnson.  To quote the official Senate history again, this time with reference to the reaction presidential candidate Martin Van Buren met when he chose Johnson as his running mate:
Van Buren’s ally Albert Balch had previously warned Jackson that “I do not think from what I hear daily that the nomination of Johnson for the Vice Presidency will be popular in any of the slave holding states except Ky. on account of his former domestic relations,” and a Van Buren correspondent later predicted that “Col. Johnson’s . . .  weight would absolutely sink the whole party in Virginia.” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron warned Jackson that Johnson was “not only positively unpopular in Tennessee . . .  but affirmatively odious” and begged the president “to assure our friends that the humblest of us do not believe that a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the Vice Presidency.” He predicted that “the very moment Col. J. is announced, the newspapers will open upon him with facts, that he had endeavored often to force his daughters into society, that the mother in her life time, and they now, rode in carriages, and claimed equality.”
Van Buren’s friend may have been right about Virginia; that state’s electors refused to vote for Johnson, throwing the 1836 vice presidential election into the Senate.
*Phoenix, Arizona, that is
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