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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

The Bumbling Vice President: Pattern or Unfair Caricature?

June 10, 2009 07:32 PM
by Emily Coakley
As the media reports on Vice President Joe Biden’s latest misstep, some wonder if he is fulfilling the long-standing stereotype of a bumbling second-in-command.

Tunnel Comment Most Recent Gaffe

This week work started on a multi-billion dollar train tunnel connecting Manhattan and New Jersey. News outlets reported that Vice President Joe Biden mistakenly told reporters that the tunnel would be for cars.

“The mistake is notable given the former Delaware senator’s well-documented affinity for trains and frequent Amtrak commutes between Washington and Wilmington during his Senate years,” Fox News reported. Along with the story is a link to “Biden’s List of Political Blunders.”

Biden, it seems, has taken his place in an all-too familiar role: that of a bumbling vice president whose antics and mistakes are fodder for the media and late-night television monologues.

So entrenched is the idea that last year Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger published a book called “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance.”

The authors marveled at “the bewildering fact” that Americans don’t seem to consider that a vice president might have to assume the highest office one day. The country has chosen “a buffoon’s gallery of rogues, incompetents, empty suits, abysmal spellers, degenerate golfers and corrupt Marylanders to the Vice Presidency,” they wrote, according to the blog Boing Boing.
For example, Vice President Calvin Coolidge reportedly ate lunch alone in the Senate cafeteria, facing a wall, according to the book. According to Boing Boing, in 1926, Walter Lippmann, a columnist, wrote, “Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point.”

In more recent history, Gerald Ford, who was prone to such accidents as bumping his head on a helicopter doorway or falling while skiing, was lampooned by Chevy Chase and "Saturday Night Live," CNN reported in 2006.

Boing Boing reports that Vice President Dan Quayle told Sam Donaldson in 1989, “I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made,” which about sums up his mishaps.

Spiro Agnew resigned after being investigated “for tax fraud and extortion,” according to KPHO, a Phoenix television station.

Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, reportedly took the oath of office while drunk on whiskey. He later explained that he drank because an infection caused him pain, KPHO reported.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Bumbling’ caricature more complicated

After hearing tales of spelling “potato” with an ‘e’ (Quayle) or the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” (Agnew, according to KPHO), some might wonder just how a person got to be vice president.

Early vice presidents earned the office by getting the second highest number of votes in a presidential election. In that system, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both vice presidents who were then elected president. Later, presidents selected their running mates. Those selected often had long, distinguished political careers at the state or national level.

“Altogether, the modern vice president typically is an experienced and talented political leader who is loyal to the president and admired by the party,” wrote Michael Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee, in a 2002 American Prospect essay.

In recent history, vice presidents, including Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Dan Quayle and Walter Mondale, were U.S. senators before moving to their new position. George H.W. Bush had served the executive branch: director of the Central Intelligence Agency and ambassador to the United Nations were just two of his roles, according to his White House biography.

Jonah Goldberg, in a 2000 column in National Review Online, suggested that it’s the office, not the person, that’s the problem. He described the “vice presidential curse” to explain why Martin Van Buren and the elder George Bush were the only two sitting vice presidents selected as running mates who were then elected to the presidency. In the column, Goldberg used the curse to back up his prediction that Al Gore wouldn’t become president.

Goldberg argued that a good vice president “must necessarily make himself the lesser man. He is the placeholder at state funerals. He is the ribbon cutter at shopping malls. He is the guy sent out for doughnuts during National Security meetings.”

And for vice presidents who want to become president, they face, “a downside to the vice presidency, of course, especially the certain prospect of being a steady source of merriment for late-night television comedians,” Nelson wrote.

But vice presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries have had a better time than the earlier ones.

“While early vice presidents were often ignored by their presidents and had to be content with ceremonial duties, recent ones have had a hand in shaping policy,” according to KPHO.

Historians have also been kind to some who were teased. Gerald Ford, in particular, has been more appreciated recently.

“Jerry Ford, perhaps the most accidental of American presidents, [did] a better job than I had predicted or imagined. You have my respect and thanks, Mr. President,” wrote Richard Reeves in American Heritage magazine, according to CNN. Reeves wrote “an unflattering biography” of Ford in the 1970s, CNN reports.

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