The Vice Presidents That History Forgot: A Rogues Gallery of Mediocrities, Criminals and Even Corpses
In 1966, I stood outside my elementary school in Maryland, waving a sign for Spiro Agnew. He was running for governor against a segregationist who campaigned on the slogan, “Your Home Is Your Castle—Protect It.” My parents, like many Democrats, crossed party lines that year to help elect Agnew. Two years later, he became Richard Nixon’s surprise choice as running mate, prompting pundits to wonder, “Spiro who?” At 10, I was proud to know the answer.
Agnew isn’t otherwise a source of much pride. He became “Nixon’s Nixon,” an acid-tongued hatchet man who resigned a year before his boss, for taking bribes. But “Spiro who?” turned me into an early and enduring student of vice-presidential trivia. Which led me, a few months ago, to Huntington, Indiana, an industrial town that was never much and is even less today. It’s also the boyhood home of our 44th vice president.
His elementary school is unmarked, a plain brick building that’s now a senior citizens center. But across the street stands an imposing church that has been rechristened the “Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center.” Inside the former chapel, you can see “Danny” Quayle’s report card (A’s and B’s), his toy truck and exhibits on his checkered tenure as vice president. He “accomplished more than most realize,” a caption states, noting Quayle’s visits to 47 countries and his chairmanship of the Council on Competitiveness.
But the learning center isn’t a shrine to Quayle—or a joke on its namesake, who famously misspelled “potato.” It is, instead, a nonpartisan collection of stories and artifacts relating to all 47 vice presidents: the only museum in the land devoted to the nation’s second-highest office. This neglect might seem surprising, until you tour the museum and learn just how ignored and reviled the vice presidency has been for most of its history. John Nance Garner, for one, said the job wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
“Actually, Garner said ‘piss,’ not spit, but the press substituted another warm bodily fluid,” notes Daniel Johns, the museum director. This polishing of Garner’s words marked a rare instance of varnish being applied to the office. While Americans sanctify the presidency and swathe it in myth, the same has rarely applied to the president’s “spare tire,” as Garner also called himself.