“The vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.” —John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, Vice President of the United States (1933–1941)
We’re going to be hearing a lot about the vice presidency, with Donald Trump’s circuitous announcement of Mike Pence as his running mate and Hillary Clinton’s selection soon to come. There will be discussions of how in recent years vice presidents have taken on large roles in their administrations. Or did for a time, anyway: Clinton-Gore and Bush-Cheney both had spectacular falling-outs—there’s a reason Al’s not out there supporting Hillary and Dick didn’t invigorate the low-energy campaign of Dubya’s brother Jeb.
But ultimately, the vice presidency is all about death. A vice president’s daily job consists largely of attending state funerals deemed unworthy of a president’s time. Upon being asked how he would be used as vice president, Nelson Rockefeller allegedly replied: “That depends on who dies.”
King dutifully served out his term, refusing to let a little thing like his own death prevent him from assisting Franklin Pierce.
All the while the veep waits for the news of the president’s death, a tragedy for the nation and a huge promotion personally.
And in their spare time, American vice presidents tend to bumble around saying unintentionally hilarious things (“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a parent and child”—Dan Quayle) and generally doing their best to embarrass our great nation: Spiro Agnew gave a preview of what was to come for boss Richard Nixon by resigning so he could plead guilty to income tax evasion and avoid political corruption charges, including allegedly accepting bribes while serving as VP.
That’s what makes the tenure of William Rufus de Vane King so inspiring.
Today King is mostly remembered for circumstantial evidence that he and President James Buchanan were lovers, including:
-Neither man ever married.
-They lived together for more than a decade.
-Former President Andrew Jackson referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” (In fairness, Jackson was a total dick.)
Regardless, by 1852 King had a great deal of political experience, having been Minister to France as well as a congressman and then a U.S. Senator from Alabama. He was a logical pick as the Democratic running mate for New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce, who unexpectedly won the nomination on the 49th ballot.
Pierce-King beat the Winfield Scott-William Alexander Graham ticket and at age 66, King became vice president.
At which point he went to Cuba and died.
OK, he made it back to the United States before his death from tuberculosis, but he was sworn in on Cuban soil and served only 45 days before moving on to that great legislative body in the sky.
But not to worry, as Congress swiftly replaced King with… well, no one.
Indeed, it took nearly 114 years before the 25th amendment was ratified in 1967, finally establishing what happens if America’s vice president, you know, drops dead or something.
Instead, King dutifully served out his term, refusing to let a little thing like his own death prevent him from assisting Franklin Pierce.
Pierce governed terribly, to the point his own party refused to nominate him for reelection in 1856.
In short: King, a.k.a. the dead guy, was arguably the most productive member of the Pierce administration.
King did not nothing to antagonize North or South and just focused on peacefully decomposing. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s quality vice presidentin’ and we should learn from it.
For instance, he never became fixated on a Russian “mystic”—referred to as “Dear Guru” in letters—and obsessing over the charms of the Soviet Union. Nah, that would FDR’s vice president Henry Wallace, before he got replaced by Harry S. Truman in 1944.
And he never badmouthed his president, as VPs are prone to do in their later years. “I’ve known all the Vice Presidents since Henry Wallace,” Rockefeller once said. “They were all frustrated, and some were pretty bitter.”
But we digress. With Pierce out of the way, the Democrats turned to King’s old roomie. James Buchanan won the 1856 election over Republican John C. Fremont and former President Millard Fillmore, who was now running with the “Know-Nothing” Party, a group determined to remind those Washington fat cats what really mattered to the American people: Catholics. Specifically, hating Catholics.
And suddenly America, for the first time since 1853, experienced the horror of having a Vice President who was alive.
Assisted by Vice President John C. Breckenridge—at no point during his term a rotting corpse—Buchanan somehow proved to be even worse than Pierce as Civil War became inevitable. Buchanan declined to seek a second term, denying voters the campaign slogan: “BUCHANAN ’60: I AM LITERALLY TEARING THIS NATION APART.”
Vice President Breckenridge went on to fight for the Confederacy, becoming the first and, to this point anyway, only Vice President to take up arms against the United States. After the Confederacy’s defeat, he also became our first veep to flee to Canada.
Whereas King did not nothing to antagonize North or South and just focused on peacefully decomposing.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s quality vice presidentin’ and we should learn from it.
My modest modern proposal: We cryogenically freeze our vice president, who will only be thawed in time of crisis or when voted out of office. Even then, some might be better left on ice—how cool would it be to, many generations from now, unexpectedly unleash Joe Biden on the unprepared future world? It would be like Demolition Man, minus the dye job and overalls.
And until that happens, may our nation reflect on Dan Quayle’s wise words:
“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is: to be prepared.”