Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Probing the soul of a nation’s VPs

Charles Dawes, shown here as ambassador to Britain in 1932, was vice president under Calvin Coolidge.
file 1932/associated press
Charles Dawes, shown here as ambassador to Britain in 1932, was vice president under Calvin Coolidge.

Here’s one thing I’m grateful for this holiday season: That my old campaign-trail friend Jules Witcover decided that writing a book about America’s vice presidents would be a good project to undertake in his mid-80s. In addition to penning three syndicated columns a week, that is.

It took him three years, but Witcover has every right to be pleased with the result.

Most of us probably wouldn’t sit down to read an individual biography of each of this nation’s 47 second-in-commands. Thus the appeal of this volume. “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power” (Smithsonian Books) devotes five to 15 pages to each, which felt just right to this easily distracted occasional armchair historian.

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Fourteen of those men became presidents, eight following the death of a sitting president. Four of those presidential deaths came through assassination. Interestingly, it was Witcover’s own nearness to two assassination attempts, one fatal, that helped stir his interest in doing a book that explored the way vice presidents have been chosen. He was just a few feet away in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. He was there in Sacramento on Sept. 5, 1975, when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a Charles Manson follower, pulled a gun in an attempt to shoot President Ford.

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Given the very real chance that a vice president will become president, a poor selection does the nation a real disservice. And yet, over the years, “most vice presidents were picked without much care, either as a booby prize or for the part of the country or the state they came from,” he says.

Two recent VP picks have left him nonplussed.

“I was particularly amazed when the senior George Bush picked Dan Quayle, because George H.W. was only vice president for about 10 weeks when Ronald Reagan was shot,” Witcover says. “I figured he of all people would make a serious choice.”

He minces no words about John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate: “It was an insult to the country and the office.”

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An example of a poor pick that had serious consequences for the country came when Abraham Lincoln dumped Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, his smart, principled, energetic VP, because he felt he needed a pro-union Southerner on the ticket to win reelection in 1864. He got that in Andrew Johnson, but when one of our greatest presidents fell to an assassin’s bullet, his mediocre successor quickly became embroiled in a bitter battle with Congress over reconstruction.

Some fascinating figures emerge from Witcover’s history, figures like Charles Curtis, who had Kaw Indian heritage and lived some of his childhood on an Indian Reservation, where he spoke French and Kaw before he did English. Curtis spent his teen years as a jockey; his horse-riding success won him recognition that later helped launch his political career — a career that ultimately led to his selection as Herbert Hoover’s VP.

Or Henry Wilson, whose father put his 10-year-old son into a form of farm servitude for most of his teen years, after which he moved from New Hampshire to Natick, became a cobbler, won a legislative seat, and then rode the brief Know Nothing wave to a US Senate seat. Wilson then became a Republican, a fervent opponent of slavery, and a populist. Chosen as Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate in his 1872 reelection campaign, Wilson traveled some 10,000 miles as part of Grant’s reelection effort, only to suffer a first stroke two months into his term and a second, fatal one, some two years later.

And then there’s Charles Dawes, the accomplished Kansan who served as Calvin Coolidge’s VP — and whose favorite exclamation — “Hell and Maria” — proved both a crowd-pleaser and a nickname-imparter. Shut out of the administration’s inner councils by the reserved and perhaps resentful Coolidge, the outspoken Dawes refused to preside quietly over the US Senate, but instead lectured its members about the time they wasted filibustering.

So what’s next for Jules, now 87? Well, he’s looking for a subject — not for his three-time-a-week column, mind you, but for his next book.

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“This is my 19th book and I’d like to make it an even 20,” he said. “But this one took a lot out of me.”

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.