The American Vice Presidency

From Irrelevance to Power

By Jules Witcover

Smithsonian Books. 576 pp. $34.95

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow

John Nance Garner, the 32d vice president of the United States, is credited with perhaps the most famous quotation about the office, which he supposedly described as "not worth a bucket of warm spit."

According to Witcover, the word used by Garner, who served under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1941, probably was something a lot more pungent than spit. And it is such interesting tidbits that make this history of the vice presidency and its 47 occupants interesting reading, because it's tough to mine the subject for anything deeper.

The vice presidency, it seems, is the modeling clay - or perhaps the Silly Putty - of all political offices, capable of being molded into any shape the president wishes.

Although 14 vice presidents have eventually become president, the only Constitutional role its occupant fills is presiding over the Senate.

Originally, the vice presidency was a consolation prize awarded to whoever came in second in the electoral college voting. But the incongruity of this soon became apparent, resulting in the passage in 1804 of the 12th Amendment, stating that the electors would vote separately for each office.

In practical terms, this has usually meant that the president chooses a "compatible" running mate. But this compatibility has had many faces: Paying off political debts, being a fit successor if anything happens to the president, or helping him get elected.

Despite all the political chatter about "balancing the ticket," though, it's hard in modern times even to recall speculation about the vice president having any positive or negative effect on the presidential results.

Lyndon B. Johnson is widely credited with helping John F. Kennedy carry Texas, which he needed, in the 1960 election. And there was enough speculation in 2008 that Sarah Palin was a drag on John McCain and the Republican ticket that some conservatives were calling on her to step down. And that's about it.

Witcover tries manfully to describe the growth of the office as a transformation "from mere consolation prize to de facto assistant presidency" as a natural progression. And certainly most vice presidents have not been as high-profile as Dick Cheney or even Joe Biden.

But it still comes off as more the whim of whoever holds the top office.