Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance, a look at the bumbling, murdering, drunken idiots (and others) who've served as vice-president of the USA

Holy cow, did I ever enjoy reading Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger, a snarky, thorough look at the foibles and missteps of the vice presidency from John Adams to Dick Cheney. I had no idea how completely comic the office has been through the years, but, as the authors note: "[The Vice Presidents'] relentless and overwhelming facelessness is testament to the bewildering fact that for more than 200 years, the American people have elected a buffoon's gallery of rogues, incompetents, empty suits, abysmal spellers, degenerate golfers and corrupt Marylanders to the Vice Presidency with barely a passing consideration that they might one day have to assume the highest office in the land."

Each profile is illustrated with wicked caricatures like these:

And chock full of useful quotes and details like these:

Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson offered his personal collection of 6,487books to restock the new library [of Congress, burned in the War of 1812], for which Congress paid him $23,950. Jefferson's gesture was not as beneficent as it appeared: For all his extraordinary talents, Thomas Jefferson was abysmal in his personal financial affairs. He would die virtually impoverished with enormous debts hanging over him, leaving his daughter penniless.

Aaron Burr: In his twilight [Aaron] Burr found solace in letters and women, sending breezy notes to his beloved daughter, Theodesia, regaling her with tales of his favorite European prostitutes, rating them by price and satisfaction -- the kind of bonding every daughter longs for from her father.

Charles Fairbanks: "No public speaker can more quickly drive an audience to despair." - The Nation, describing Charles Fairbanks's oratorical prowess.

Calvin Coolidge: "Mr Coolidge's genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is not an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity, which keeps Mr Coolidge occupied constantly" - Columnist Walter Lippmann, 1926

As presiding officer of the Senate, Coolidge would eat lunch alone at a corner table in the Senate dining room, facing the wall.

John Nance Garner: "[It's] not worth a bucket of warm piss." - John Nance Garner sharing his opinion of the Vice Presidency with fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson.

Harry S Truman: "Look at all the Vice Presidents in history. Where are they? They were about as useful as a cow's fifth teat." - Harry S Truman, to Time Magazine, January 18, 1954, explaining why he never wanted to be Vice President.

Washington Post music critic Paul Hume dared to write an honest, if somewhat brutal, review of First Daughter Margaret Truman's singing recital in 1950... Truman...dropped Hume a letter, saying..."You sound like a frustrated old man who has never made a success, an eight-ulcer man on a four-ulcer job, with all four ulcers working. I never met you, but if I do, you'll need a new nose and a supporter below."

Richard Nixon: "Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying bastard. If he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd tell a lie just to keep his hand in." - Harry S Truman.

Dan Quayle: "I stand by all the misstatements that I've made." - Dan Quayle to ABC's Sam Donaldson, August 17, 1989.

Dick Cheney: When travelling, Vice President Cheney demands that his his hotel suites...have all televisions preset to Fox News Channel.

? Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance



  1. What a portrait of Coolidge: “a grim, determined, alert inactivity,” and dining alone with his face to the wall!

  2. “Coolidge would eat lunch alone at a corner table in the Senate dining room, facing the wall.”
    Now why haven’t I thought of that?

  3. Were not Truman’s political teeth cut in 1930s Kansas City?
    In the 30s, KC was a place where you could not be hired as a cop unless you had previously served time (as a prisoner) in the state pen…talk about a corrupt polity! That’s KC in the 1930s.
    OTOH that place and era did give us some great music, like Count Basie’s stuff.
    Almost kinda like Renaissance Italy, where corrupt politics can serve to ‘mid-wife’ great art, and produce great and colorful characters.

  4. @5: Yes, the Pendergast Machine. I don’t know where I recall reading it, but apparently Robert Heinlein was the only fellow appointed by the Pendergast Machine to the Naval Academy who actually graduated.

  5. thanx bevatron, here’s a link:
    I had not known the Pendergast name…Ready-Mix, it says. Kinda like “privatization” leading to cronies getting the Gov. contracts and $$.
    I note too that these guys were selling & controlling the booze in KC during Prohibition. An odd echo of ‘popular & populist’ Columbian/ghetto “drug lords”?

  6. I thought I’d first heard about this book here on BB. I read this and read many parts of it again because it was so fascinating. Makes me want to learn more about these people and blog about some of them. Hmmmmmm. Inspiration.

  7. Dick Cheney: When travelling, Vice President Cheney demands that his his hotel suites…have all televisions preset to Fox News Channel.

    I don’t think I have to add anything to this.

  8. I believe it was Coolidge who said, “If you don’t say nothin, no one can ask you to repeat it.”

  9. Nary a soul hath put pen to page with half the slicing wit of Wayne Shellabarger, whose collection of poster art (“I’m Totally Helpless”) I drag out whenever I most need to laugh, or whenever my positive opinion of human nature gets too far out of hand.

  10. Yes, Truman was a product of a corrupt political machine, he was also elected by one of the most racist voters in the North.

    Yet when he had power he constantly fought for working people and minorities. He was a champion of real Americans of all kinds. It is counter intuitive for this to be the case but it is.

    Read about him & you will see a great man who faced great challenges with a tough no nonsense style that put us first.

  11. Indeed, Anon, it would be difficult to be a champion of unreal Americans, of any kind.
    P.S.: I take this opportunity to wish a Happy Inauguration Day to our great neighbours to the South, and to express my hope that the new Administration shall be wise and just in all of its doings, and that its undertakings on behalf of the well-being of all Americans may prosper.

  12. Dick Cheney: When traveling, Vice President Cheney demands that his his hotel suites…have all televisions preset to Fox News Channel.

    You’d think after a while it would get annoying to hear that echo every time he said anything.

  13. I just thought I’d point out that Jefferson’s financial failings were not totally his own fault. He inherited significant debt (along with significant land, it is true) from his father, of which he never did get rid. He also would have done much better financially to be president today. Back then, he had to pay for the state dinners out of his own pocket. Too bad we couldn’t get W to do the same; that would have given us one positive thing to say about him.

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