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The Vice Squad

Just in time for President’s Day, a fun activity the entire family can enjoy: Who was the worst vice-president ever? We review history’s candidates who could reach for Cheney’s crown.

A certain parlor game has taken hold of the liberal intellectual set here in Washington, called, “Who was the worst president ever?” Or, put more honestly, “Who is the worst president currently,” since the game is less about comparing Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon and entirely focused on justifying why George W. Bush trumps the both of them—not to mention Warren Harding, James Buchanan, and Herbert Hoover. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote in a Rolling Stone cover story last year, “Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents.” Lefty cocktail parties have been bubbling ever since.

The argument against Bush is relatively easy, and his predecessors’ rap sheets are well enough known to make for a facile and persuasive case. Lyndon Johnson may have led us into a terrible war, but he also championed civil rights and created Medicare. William Henry Harrison may not have achieved much in office, but then, he did die only a month after taking the oath. Ulysses Grant led an amazingly corrupt administration, but at least he didn’t need to lie about his military service. Rutherford Hayes stole an election, but at least he didn’t presume a broad public mandate to squash civil liberties. And so on.

Johnson was drunk at his vice-presidential inauguration, and gave a long, incoherent speech (like many of us, he claimed he had been drinking to counter symptoms of typhoid fever).But for those tired of Harrisons and Hardings, a more compelling challenge awaits: Who was (or is) the worst vice president ever? As is the case with his nominal boss, Dick Cheney has a pretty good claim on the title. He was the lead architect on the Iraq war, having instructed his staff to lie, threaten, and bluster their way to the battlefield (not that they did any of the fighting). He refuses to admit that things don’t look so good in the Middle East, and that maybe he’s culpable. And he has led the assault on domestic civil liberties and championed the torture of foreigners—in part a result of his campaign to champion presidential absolutism, Constitution be damned.

How does he stack up against his predecessors? How do Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and Aaron Burr compare? The problem with this game is that, unlike with the roster of presidents, few people know much at all about the nation’s right-hand men. And until recently, vice presidents did so little their office was largely ceremonial, there to cut ribbons and make speeches but otherwise just to be close by in case the president fell ill or died.

Still, there are contenders, going back almost to the founding of the country. Burr is obvious: While vice president to Thomas Jefferson, Burr shot and killed former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel; he was later tried for plotting to make himself emperor of the Louisiana Purchase. Elbridge Gerry, who served under Madison, refused to sign the Constitution and was a known philanderer. John Calhoun—veep for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson—was an ardent defender of slavery.

One of the historians’ favorite targets is Andrew Johnson, who served under Abraham Lincoln in his second term and succeeded him after his assassination. Johnson was visibly drunk at his vice-presidential inauguration, and gave a long, incoherent speech (like many of us have done, he claimed he had been drinking to counter the symptoms of typhoid fever). Once in the White House, Johnson rolled back Reconstruction, tried to bowl over Congress on a variety of issues, and consequently faced two attempts at impeachment.

His successor, Grant, ran one of the most fraudulent administrations in American history, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that his vice president, Schuyler Colfax, was also thoroughly corrupt. Most notably, along with more than a dozen other government officials, Colfax accepted bribes in the form of company stocks for construction contracts along the Union-Pacific Railroad. He was bumped from the second-term ticket, and spent the rest of his life as a touring lecturer. Fittingly, in 1885 he died of a heart attack on the way to the train station.

Cheney’s ignoble claim is magnified by the creative ways in which he has used, and abused, his office.It took another century before an equally perfidious veep came to office. Spiro Agnew, governor of Maryland, was considered so unfit for the job that Nixon jokingly called him his “insurance policy” against assassination. But his real problem was fraud—as governor, he had accepted $29,000 in bribes. At one point considered a leading contender for the 1976 presidency, Agnew resigned in October 1973, and pleaded no-contest to the charge. In his crazier, zanier later days, he claimed Nixon had threatened to kill him if he didn’t resign.

Where does Dan Quayle fit into all this? Like Agnew, Quayle is best thought of as George H.W. Bush’s body armor, having almost artfully garbled speeches and, most famously, the word “potato.” Quayle also embodied the nadir of the culture wars, going after Murphy Brown (unwed mother), Tupac Shakur (gangsta rapper), and Al Gore (environmentalist). Quayle has led a relatively quiet, prosperous life since he and Bush, Sr., lost to Gore and Bill Clinton in 1992; he is now chair of the hedge fund Cerebus Global Investments, as sure a sign as any that the hedge-fund bubble is about to burst.

But do any of these men, silly and sinister as they may be, really compare with Cheney? Like Cheney, Burr shot a man, yet actually killed him. Johnson was a drunkard, and Gerry an adulterer. Agnew was a white-collar criminal. Quayle was, to put it mildly, seriously wanting in the finer points of public speaking. But killing a man, seducing his wife, and drinking his liquor aren’t unique to the vice presidency; Burr, Gerry, and Johnson didn’t need to be in the executive branch to commit their sins. Agnew took bribes while governor, not vice president. And Quayle is the C student to Cheney’s schoolyard bully—he’s headed to remedial English, while Cheney is bound for history’s detention hall.

Cheney’s ignoble claim is magnified by the creative ways in which he has used, and abused, his office. Bush, Sr., of course, was a very visible vice president under Ronald Reagan, but he used his post more as a platform for highlighting issues than making policy. Gore did play a policymaking role in the Clinton years, but his efforts were relatively small-bore, such as cutting government waste and promoting space exploration.

Cheney, on the other hand, has made his office into a virtual second White House, with a powerful “cabinet” of domestic and foreign policy advisers and a small army of lawyers. He has been at the center of planning on environmental policy (or, rather, discussions on how to weaken environmental policy) and Iraq planning (having set up a Pentagon group to cherry-pick CIA intelligence). In 2003 Bush gave him the power to classify documents, which he has used with glee, even classifying directories of his staff. His legal team led the charge against detainee rights. And he has assiduously courted right-wing reactionaries on TV and in the press, poisoning the well of political discourse in Washington. His rush to war, his disregard for human rights and civil liberties, his enmity toward the very notion of checks and balances, and his single-minded focus on executive absolutism have placed the country in a precarious position from which it will not soon extract itself. We are hated around the world, even as we hate each other at home.

All of which may explain why the game of “Who’s the Worst Vice President” may not take off, after all. It’s not just that Cheney doesn’t have much competition. It’s that by misusing his office in ways his predecessors couldn’t have imagined, he’s rewritten the rules of the game itself.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen