...don't you love 'em? They really do so little--Sarah Palin was right to wonder last July just what the heck the office is all about--yet in campaigns they cause so much trouble. Even John Adams, our first vice-president, spent much of his time grumbling that he got no respect. And our second vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, spent most of his time undermining President John Adams.
Democrats should take care not to crow too much over Palin's family troubles, since backlash is a wonderful thing in America. But one cannot help but be reminded of George H.W. Bush's veep pick in 1988, Dan Quayle. Building on fears that vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle was not qualified to be president, the Democrats ran an ad with grainy footage of vice-presidents like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president. The overvoice intoned: “One out of five American vice-presidents has to rise to the duties of commander-in-chief. After five months of reflection, Bush’s choice: J. Danforth Quayle. Hopefully, we’ll never know how great a lapse of judgment that really was.” The soundtrack was an ominously thumping heartbeat.
Quayle's worst damage however was in Bush's 1992 contest against Bill Clinton. Searching for an issue, he picked the lack of “family values” in entertainment. The music of rapper Tupac Shakur, for instance, had “no place in our society,” according to Quayle. Shakur was a relatively easy target, but then the V-P made the mistake of going after the phenomenally popular television show Murphy Brown. In the show, Brown (played by actress Candace Bergen) was an anchorwoman who had decided to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Quayle thundered that bearing a child alone “mocks the importance of fathers” and was an example of the “poverty of values” that afflicted television.
This was not a smart move, since even Republicans loved to watch Murphy Brown and because Quayle, weirdly, was acting like this sitcom character was actually a real person. White House staffers now decided that Quayle should actually change his tune and praise Murphy Brown for her courage in having the baby (rather than, say, an abortion). Bush saved Quayle from this humiliation, and the whole situation died when, in early June, the Vice-President visited a New Jersey elementary school and corrected student William Figueroa’s spelling of “potato,” claiming it was “potatoe.”
One of my favorite vice-presidential stories seems to sum it all up. President William Howard Taft’s running mate in 1912 was his vice-president, James Sherman, who however died on October 30, just before Election Day. Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler agreed to replace him—but only, as he told Taft, on the condition that Taft not win. Taft solemnly assured him that he would not, and indeed he lost handily to Woodrow Wilson.