Hail To The Veep: America's Executive Underdog

Feb 17, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 9:01 am

Forty-seven men have been vice president. John Adams was the first, and he ascended to the presidency after George Washington's second term. But only 13 other vice presidents did that.

With Presidents Day just around the corner, we want to salute the rest of them — the overlooked vice presidents who never rose higher than that office, and then quietly shrank from the national stage.

Vice presidents may have their own march ("Hail Columbia," in case you're wondering), but that doesn't mean they haven't had it tough. They've been known to endure both obscurity and ridicule.

The prominent Sen. Hubert Humphrey served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president from 1965 to 1969 only to become the target of a musical satire by singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer. Lehrer sings, "Whatever became of Hubert?" and he's right in wondering that. The vice presidency swallowed Humphrey up, just like it did Daniel D. Tompkins, William Rufus King, William A. Wheeler, Thomas A. Hendricks, Levi P. Morton and many more.

In other words, it's possible to be a heartbeat away from the presidency and yet as functional as an appendix.

Memorable And Forgettable New Yorkers

Still, there are ways to escape being forgotten as vice president.

Thomas Jefferson's first vice president, New Yorker Aaron Burr, managed to keep his name in the history books by taking the shoot-someone-prominent approach. He killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel.

Jefferson's second vice president was New York Gov. George Clinton. (Incidentally, New York has given the country more vice presidents than any other state.) Clinton was memorialized with a bridge over the Hudson River — at least kind of. It's called the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, but according to the Rev. Kenneth Walsh of the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, N.Y., "Most people call it the Rhinecliff Bridge."

Clinton is buried in the Old Dutch Church's cemetery. Well, first he was buried in Washington, then he was reinterred in Walsh's graveyard.

"When he was buried here in 1909, it was with great ceremony," Walsh says. "There are actually photographs of people standing next to his skeleton — rather gruesome."

Yet another thing Clinton can be remembered for.

Vice President and fellow New Yorker Daniel Tompkins is also buried in a New York churchyard. He served under President James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. It's said that Tompkins spent much of his vice presidency dead drunk. Despite that, Manhattan's Tompkins' Square bears his name.

Another New Yorker, James Schoolcraft Sherman, served under President William H. Taft from 1909 to 1912. Some say he was the first sitting vice president to fly in an airplane.

Frank Tomaino, a volunteer at the Oneida County Historical Society, says Sherman helped put his hometown of Utica, N.Y. — and Oneida County, N.Y. — in the national spotlight, and locals haven't forgotten him for it. According to Tomaino, the area has two streets named after James Schoolcraft Sherman — Sherman Place and Sherman Avenue — and there's a statue of him on one of Utica's busiest highways.

A Hoosier VP 'Hotbed'

Indiana is America's second-greatest source of seconds in command — that's including those who were born there and those who were just associated with the state.

"We're a hotbed for vice presidents," says Dan Johns, curator of the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington, Ind., "Schuyler Colfax, Charles Warren Fairbanks, Thomas [Andrews] Hendricks, Thomas Riley Marshall."

And, of course, there's the center's founder, J. Danforth Quayle.

Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, was considered to be a big jokester. Once, while presiding over the Senate, Marshall whispered this wisecrack in response to a long-winded member who was cataloging the nation's many needs: "What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar."

"And of course he become immortal for saying that," Johns says.

Lesser-Known Legacies

Most states were not as effective as New York or Indiana in producing vice presidents. Maine has given the country only two: Nelson Rockefeller, who served under President Gerald Ford, and Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin served as vice president during Abraham Lincoln's first term, so he never succeeded to the presidency. Still, Hamlin wasn't entirely forgotten. There's a statue of him in the U.S. Capitol and in a public park in Bangor, Maine, and according to Dana Lippitt of the Bangor Museum and History Center, "he's also considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party." Well, at least the Maine Republican Party.

Kansas contributed one vice president under Herbert Hoover, Charles Curtis, who brought a unique ethnic heritage to the office.

"The thing that we celebrate in Kansas is his Indian heritage," says Kansas historian Virgil Dean. Curtis was the only vice president who could claim a strong Native American upbringing.

You'd have good reason for never having heard of Jeremiah Jones Colbath of Farmington, N.H. The man born Colbath later changed his name to Henry Wilson and went on to serve as vice president in Ulysses S. Grant's second term, after Grant's first VP, Schuyler Colfax, vacated the office.

According to Jennifer Hance of the Natick Historical Society in Natick, Mass., "What kept [Wilson] from further political experience was he died."

The Vice Presidential Standout

The list of vice presidents goes on and on, but you get the point. It's a lonely office that doesn't offer much of a legacy — at least not until recently.

No retrospective of vice presidents is complete without including the special status of Calvin Coolidge's garrulous and talented one. In 1925, the year he entered office, Charles G. Dawes was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in World War I. Before that, in 1912, he composed "Melody in A Major." Years later, Carl Sigman added lyrics and renamed it "It's All in the Game." Tommy Edwards made the tune a hit in the fall of 1958, when it spent six weeks as No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

So it was that Dawes — our 30th vice president — distinguished himself from the pack by becoming the only vice president to have both a Top 10 hit and a Nobel Peace Prize. That's an achievement that not even a president can claim.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Monday is Presidents' Day. But what about a more overlooked group, the vice presidents? Especially, the overlooked vice presidents.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAIL COLUMBIA")

BLOCK: Vice presidents do have their own march - this one called "Hail Columbia." It's the song that's supposed to be played when a vice president of the United States enters a room.

Forty-seven men have been vice president. John Adams was the first one and he ascended to the presidency when George Washington's second term ended. But only 14 other vice presidents have gone on to the top job. And it's the rest of them we want to salute now; those who quietly shrank from the national stage. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Only 13 other vice presidents have gone on to the presidency, for a total of 14.]

SIEGEL: It's been tough for many of them. Vice presidents have been known to endure obscurity and even ridicule. Prominent U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey became President Lyndon Johnson's vice president, only to become the target of musical satire by Tom Lehrer.

TOM LEHRER: (Singing) What ever became of Hubert? Has anyone heard a thing? Once he shone on his own, now he sits home alone and waits for the phone to ring.

SIEGEL: The vice presidency swallowed Hubert Humphrey, just as it did Dan Tompkins, Billy King, Bill Wheeler, Tommy Hendricks, Levi Morton, and many more.

BLOCK: Yes, it is possible to be a heartbeat beat away from the presidency, yet as functional as the appendix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAIL COLUMBIA")

SIEGEL: Now, there certainly are ways to escape being forgotten as vice president. Thomas Jefferson's first vice president was Aaron Burr. He kept his name in the history books by taking the shoot-someone-prominent approach. That's why everyone knows his name. But as for Jefferson's vice president in his second term - you know, George Clinton?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WANT THE FUNK")

GEORGE CLINTON: (Singing) Ow, we want the funk. Give up the funk...

SIEGEL: No, not that George Clinton, the funk master. We're talking about New York Governor George Clinton.

BLOCK: Indeed, New York has given us more vice presidents than any other state. Vice President Clinton is honored with a bridge over the Hudson River, the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge.

REVEREND KENNETH WALSH: Frankly, most people call it the Rhinecliff Bridge.

BLOCK: That's the Reverend Kenneth Walsh. He's pastor of the Old Dutch Church in Kingston. Vice President George Clinton is buried in its cemetery. Actually, Clinton was buried first in Washington. He was re-interred in Reverend Walsh's graveyard.

WALSH: When he was buried here in 1909, it was with great ceremony. There are actually photographs of people standing next to his skeleton - rather gruesome.

SIEGEL: Another VP New Yorker, another churchyard.

ROGER WALTERS: My name is Roger Walters. I'm the junior warden at the St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. I'm standing in the west yard near the statue that we have of Daniel D. Tompkins, vice president under President James Monroe.

SIEGEL: According to historians, Tompkins spent much of his vice presidency drunk. Despite that, Manhattan's Tompkins Square is named after him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAIL COLUMBIA")

BLOCK: James Schoolcraft Sherman was another New York vice president. He served under William Howard Taft, which sounds very painful, come to think of it. Sherman, according to sources who keep track of such things, was the first sitting vice president to fly in an airplane. And folks in his hometown of Utica, New York have not forgotten him.

FRANK TOMANO: James Schoolcraft Sherman put Oneida County in central New York on the national spotlight.

BLOCK: That's Frank Tomano, volunteer at the Oneida County Historical Society Museum.

TOMANO: There are two streets named after him - Sherman Place and Sherman Avenue. And there is a statue of the man on one of Utica's busiest highways.

SIEGEL: If you go by where our vice presidents were born, then Kentucky is the second busiest hatchery of VPs. But Indiana lays claim to the second most vice presidents associated with a state.

DAN JOHNS: We're a hotbed for vice presidents.

SIEGEL: Dan Johns is curator of the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington, Indiana. He includes men associated with Indiana, but born elsewhere.

JOHNS: Schuyler Colfax, Charles Warren Fairbanks, Thomas Andrew Hendricks, Thomas Riley Marshall.

SIEGEL: And, of course, the center's founder, J. Danforth Quayle.

Let's concentrate on Thomas Riley Marshall. He was Woodrow Wilson's vice president. He was considered to be a funny guy. While he was presiding over the Senate, as a long-winded member was cataloging the nation's many needs, Marshall whispered an immortal phrase.

JOHNS: What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.

SIEGEL: I've been trying to do the inflation in my head. A five-cent cigar in the Wilson era was not as cheap a cigar as it would have been many, many years later.

JOHNS: I'm thinking it would not be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAIL COLUMBIA")

BLOCK: The state of Maine has given us two vice presidents. One, was Nelson Rockefeller. In the 19th century there was another.

DANA LIPPIT: That would be Hannibal Hamlin.

BLOCK: And that would be Dana Lippit. She's curator for the Bangor Museum and History Center. Hamlin served as vice president in Abraham Lincoln's first term; the term he wasn't assassinated in, so Hamlin wasn't elevated to the presidency. Andrew Johnson has that privilege. But Hamlin is not entirely forgotten. A statue of him stands in the U.S. Capitol and another in a public park in Bangor.

LIPPIT: He's also considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: At least in the state of Maine. And he was the first Republican VP.

The single vice president from Kansas was President Herbert Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis. And he had an ethnic heritage unique to the office.

PROFESSOR VIRGIL DEAN: The thing that we celebrate in Kansas is his Indian heritage.

SIEGEL: That's Kansas historian Virgil Dean. Curtis was brought up in a Native American community. And you can visit the Charles Curtis House Museum in downtown Topeka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAIL COLUMBIA")

BLOCK: And you have good reason never to have heard of this next VP.

JENNIFER HANCE: He was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath in Farmington, New Hampshire.

BLOCK: Colbath had his name changed to Henry Wilson, says Jennifer Hance of the Natick, Massachusetts historic society. After Schuyler Colfax vacated the office, Wilson served as vice president in Ulysses Grant's second term.

HANCE: And what kept him from further political experience was he died.

BLOCK: But be sure to stop at his bust and read the plaque about him in the U.S. Capitol building.

SIEGEL: The list of vice presidents goes on and on. But you get the point: A lonely office and little legacy, at least until recently. But no retrospective of vice presidents is complete without including the special status of Calvin Coolidge's garrulous and talented one.

First, the year he entered office he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the First World War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MELODY IN A MAJOR")

BLOCK: Then there's this, the 1912 composition, "Melody in A Major." Charles Gates Dawes, our 30th vice president, wrote it. Years later, Carl Sigman added lyrics and Tommy Edwards had a hit with the tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL IN THE GAME")

TOMMY EDWARDS: (Singing) Many a tear has to fall but it's all in the game.

BLOCK: "It's All in the Game" was a number one on the Billboard chart for six weeks in the fall of 1958.

SIEGEL: So, Dawes is distinguished from the pack as our only vice president to have both a Top 10 tune and a Nobel Peace Prize to his name.

BLOCK: Now that's an achievement that not even a president can claim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL IN THE GAME")

EDWARDS: (Singing) And your future is looking dim, but these things your hearts can rise above. Once in a while he won't call, but it's all in the game. Soon he'll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet and he'll kiss... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.