John Adams (George Washington’s Vice President) called it “The most insignificant office that ever invention of man contrived.” Thomas Riley Marshall (Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President) said, “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice President, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”

It’s not nearly as bad as all that. The forty-seven guys who have held the office of Vice President of the United States are pretty fascinating, and because they’re often chosen to “balance a ticket” regionally or ideologically, they’re often nothing like the President they’re paired with. Although long gone are the days where the loser in the Presidential election became Vice President, they’re still people of ambition, political skill, and distinction, and many of them became Presidents themselves. Some didn’t even like the promotion as much; Martin Van Buren went on to call the Presidency “Anxious and toilsome probation.”

So, this President’s Day, disabuse the anxious and toilsome regard for Washington and Lincoln and celebrate the folks who, for centuries, have been one heartbeat away from the job. They did some pretty memorable things themselves.


1.    In 1798, John Adams signed An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

2.    Thomas Jefferson used to have jam sessions with his wife Martha and apparently scared off some of her potential suitors after they heard the two playing music together.

3.    Aaron Burr believed in sexual equality and his daughter Theodosia became one of the best educated women of her generation before she was lost at sea and probably killed by pirates.

4.    George Clinton had a fun plan for keeping taxes low: He confiscated the property of his political enemies to raise revenue.

5.    Elbridge Gerry redrew a congressional district in Massachusetts in the shape of a salamander; hence the term, “gerrymander.”

6.    Do you like Tompkins Square Park? Thank Daniel D. Tompkins.

7.    John C. Calhoun was the first Vice President to resign the job. He quit in order to run for Senate where he would be an advocate for slavery and nullification.

8.    Martin Van Buren was a nice guy. After Secretary of War John Eaton married his wife Peggy a little too quickly after her husband was lost at sea, all of the other cabinet wives ostracized her. Martin Van Buren went out of his way to talk to her at parties and he was the only one who did.

9.    Richard Mentor Johnson took his slave Julia Chinn as his common-law wife and raised and educated their children as free people.

10.    John Tyler was not buried in the United States. He was in the Confederate House of Representatives at the time of his death and was consequently buried in the Confederate States.

11.    George M. Dallas served as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, probably the awesomest job title in the world, under three Presidents.

12.    While in Europe on vacation, Millard Fillmore discovered that an American journalist named Horace Greeley was imprisoned in Paris for failing to pay a debt, and Fillmore bailed him out.

13.    William Rufus DeVane King was a notoriously flamboyant lifelong bachelor who Andrew Jackson referred to as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

14.    Elected at age 35, John C. Breckenridge was the youngest Vice President in history. He went on to be a Confederate general in the Civil War.

15.    Hannibal Hamlin, Abe Lincoln’s first Vice President, didn’t meet Abe until after they were elected.

16.    Andrew Johnson’s wife taught him how to read. Andrew made all of his own clothes, however; growing up, he was indentured to a tailor.

17.    Schuyler Colfax was accused of corruption and only lasted one term as Ulysses S. Grant’s Vice President; he retired to the lecture circuit and died of a heart attack in Mankato, Minnesota after stepping off a train into -30 weather.

18.    Henry Wilson ran a shoe store in Massachusetts before he got into politics. He also changed his name from Jeremiah Jones Colbath after reading a book about some dude named Henry Wilson as a teenager.

19.    Presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes hadn’t even heard of his Vice Presidential nominee, William Wheeler, until they were nominated. But as President and Vice President they became extremely good friends, and Wheeler became kind of a third wheel with Rutherford and First Lady “Lemonade” Lucy Hayes.

20.    The life of Chester A. Arthur’s playboy son Alan bears a strong resemblance to the character Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Also, Chester may have been secretly Canadian.

21.    Thomas A. Hendricks is the only Vice President (who did not also serve as President) whose portrait has appeared on U.S. paper money. He was on the $10 silver certificate of 1886.

22.    In 1881, Charles Guiteau was pissed off that he wasn’t appointed Minister to France and shot President James A. Garfield in a train station. The guy who got the Minister to France gig over Guiteau was future Vice President Levi P. Morton.

23.    Adlai E. Stevenson was described by friends as “windy but amusing.”

24.    Garret A. Hobart cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to deny independence to the Philippines because he wanted to convert that country to Christianity and make it part of the United States.

25.    Theodore Roosevelt was once shot in the chest before delivering a speech, but the bullet was slowed both by a glasses case and the script of the speech, and only gave Roosevelt a flesh wound. Roosevelt delivered the one-hour address with the bullet in his body and went to the hospital after he was done.

26.    Charles Fairbanks’ family home growing up was a safe haven for runaway slaves.

27.    James Schoolcraft Sherman was one of the early Republicans to break from Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive conservativism and form the base of the hard-right Republican party that we know today.

28.    Thomas Riley Marshall not only attended a Stephen Douglas / Abraham Lincoln debate as a four-year-old, he sat on the lap of whichever man wasn’t speaking.

29.    Calvin Coolidge rode a mechanical bull for “exercise.”

30.    Charles G. Dawes wrote the music for Tommy Edwards’ 1958 #1 hit single “It’s All In The Game.”

31.    Charles Curtis was three-eighths Native American and lived for a time on an Indian reservation while growing up.

32.    John Nance Garner was FDR’s Vice President for his first two terms and fully expected to run for President after those eight years. The problem was, Roosevelt changed his mind and ran for a third term. Garner challenged him and lost.

33.    Had Henry Agard Wallace been Vice President when Roosevelt died, the world might be a very different place. Wallace wouldn’t have participated in the Cold War or the Korean War, and may not have dropped the bomb on Japan.

34.    Harry S Truman’s daughter Margaret was a professional singer, and Truman wrote a scathing letter to the Washington Post critic who criticized her performance. “I never met you,” Truman wrote, “But if I do you’ll need a new nose and a supporter below.”

35.    71-year-old Alben W. Barkley was the first Vice President to get hitched while in office, marrying 37-year-old Jane Hadley.

36.    Richard Nixon proposed to his future wife the night he met her. She turned him down and they dated for two years before she finally said yes.

37.    Lyndon B. Johnson also proposed to his future wife less than 24 hours after first meeting her. Johnson went on to have numerous affairs including one with a woman named Alice Glass that lasted over 30 years.

38.    Hubert H. Humphrey caused a rift in the Democratic Party when he announced at the 1948 convention, “To those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years (too) late!” The Southern “States’ Rights” Democrats walked out and most of them were Republicans by the mid-1960s.

39.    Spiro Agnew is famous for calling his opponents “an effete corps of impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

40.    Gerald R. Ford found out at age 17 that he was adopted; he saw his biological father only twice as an adult and Ford did not think much of the guy.

41.    Nelson Rockefeller has been portrayed in the movies by both Edward Norton and John Cusack (so far) and is frequently mentioned in the series Mad Men.

42.    Walter Mondale has lost a statewide election in all 50 states as a nominee of a major party.

43.    George H. W. Bush was the first former Director of the CIA to become either President or Vice President.

44.    Dan Quayle is famous for making off-putting, confusing statements like “The holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history… No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.”

45.    Al Gore’s work has won a Grammy, an Emmy, and an Oscar.

46.    Dick Cheney is a distant cousin of Barack Obama. They share an ancestor in 17th century French immigrant Mareen Duvall.

47.    Joe Biden overcame a lifelong stuttering problem in his twenties by reciting poetry in front of a mirror.


Where did you first run into Edward Kennedy?

At Harvard College.  He had been bounced out the year before I entered for arranging to have a classmate take his Spanish exam for him.  Kennedy returned to the college after a stint in the U.S. Army in France during my sophomore year.  It didn’t seem to me that he was chastened, particularly.  He struck me as a tall, slapdash would-be jock interested mostly in the club scene, good natured but fundamentally empty.  He liked to drink and he liked the girls. When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate at 29 I was shocked.  More, bemused.

When did you begin to reevaluate?

A friend of mine, Professor Samuel Beer, who ultimately ran the government department at Harvard, had been retained by the Kennedys to prepare Ted for his primary debates in 1960 with Eddie McCormack.  McCormack was a tough-minded attorney general in Massachusetts, and his uncle, John, was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Working with Ted Kennedy, Beer found him intellectually agile, well informed, and very hard-working.  At that point I was doing articles for Esquire magazine.  I did one on Ted — it was later reprinted in Esquire‘s anthology of the best writing in the magazine during the Sixties — soon after Kennedy took his place in the Senate.  I got to know him a lot better, made close friends among his staff, and continued to write about him and his family throughout the next forty-plus years.

What is new and different in your book?

A lot.  For example, I was able to convince Ted’s primary mistress throughout the late Sixties and Seventies, Helga Wagner, to speak freely with me and share her angle on vital incidents.  She was the person he called when he climbed out of the ocean after swimming back to Edgartown the night of the Chappaquiddick accident. Her memories of that historic exchange tell a lot.
Also, I have pulled together details of the blood feud between President Richard Nixon and Kennedy.  Kennedy became convinced — on good evidence — that his life was increasingly in danger as long as Nixon remained in office, and contrived to position his friend Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to dig into the Watergate burglary and surface the tapes that drove Nixon out of office. This is a unique news break.

What do you think drove Edward Kennedy?

Ultimately, in that troubled, stress-driven family, Edward Kennedy was an afterthought.  His whole life and career amounted to an effort to justify his existence, to live up to the perception he had of his far more gifted older brothers and his father.  The paradox, of course, is that Ted was in fact the one with the extravagant gifts, the brother with the imagination and skills and judgement to move a significant political agenda.  In time he became indeed a shadow president, the one legislator who could slow down or realize any president’s agenda.

Why didn’t he ever make it to the presidency himself?

I doubt that he wanted it, really.  He had enough problems — with booze, with women, with his first wife and his sick children, with his recurrent anxiety about getting assassinated — without taking on the nation’s. I was involved in Kennedy’s 1980 run for the Democratic nomination, from writing speeches to putting up his staff that February — and I suspect that he sensed that assuming the country’s worries would be too much.

Where else should the reader look to inform himself about Edward Kennedy?

Nowhere.  It is all here, the personal and the parliamentary.  And fun to read.

Thanks.  You give a wonderful interview.