VICE PRESIDENTS are buffoons. That is the basic thesis put forth—and well supported—by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger in Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance, an illustrated rogues gallery of American vice presidents and their quirks. (The book was recently made into a documentary, which will screen in Portland this fall.) Given the recent tapping of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, it seemed like an opportune moment to check in with Bill Kelter for a look at the current vice-presidential landscape.
MERCURY: Last time we talked was in 2008. How has Joe Biden acquitted himself over his tenure as VP?
BILL KELTER: Vice President Biden has delivered as advertised—a useful attack dog when needed and a bark his master can't control. Obama knew this when he picked him, but hoped he might be able to stanch the flow of gaffes that had gushed from Biden in his 35 years in Washington, DC. It was evident almost immediately that this wasn't going to happen when he introduced his new would-be boss as "Barack America" and said that he thought Hillary [Clinton] probably would have been a smarter VP pick.
Has Joe Biden contributed any book-worthy moments?
BILL KELTER: Several. The Republicans are pleading with Obama to keep Joe on the ticket.
During the TARP debate in the 2008 campaign, Biden spoke of how, when the stock market crashed in 1929, [Franklin D. Roosevelt] went on television to talk straight to the American people. That would have been accurate, except that [Herbert] Hoover was president when the market crashed, and television was virtually nonexistent as a communication medium.
During the swine flu scare of 2009, he wasn't exactly a calming influence, going on the Today Show and announcing that he didn't want his family in airplanes or any other confined spaces lest someone's sneeze be the death of them.
There was his very un-FDR moment after the election when his party and his country looked to him and President Obama to fix a damaged nation, and he said, "There's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong."
In your expert opinion, was Paul Ryan a smart choice for the Republicans to make?
This was not the pick that I expected from Mitt Romney. He's never been one known for bold overtures. Rob Portman would have helped him win Ohio and possibly the election, and he could continue his strategy of playing out the clock and making Obama defend his record. I think his campaign has been in receivership for a few months now, though. If the Koch Brothers' fortune and Karl Rove's influence were going to save Romney from himself, there was no way another bland suit was going to suffice. No one wanted a Sarah Palin again, but they did need their own "game change."
The old axiom is that you don't want a running mate who is going to outshine you. When you are completely bereft of shine, though, that might not be such a bad thing. Given the state of his campaign and an underwhelmed base, it was a pretty smart pick.
The risk, of course, is that they've now possibly energized two bases.
Where does Ryan land on the spectrum of vice-presidential buffoonery?
When he was younger, he had a job driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. If the Democrats can get ahold of a picture of that, they might try to use it as a "Michael Dukakis in the tank" photo. Also, since he's from Wisconsin, the odds are better than ever that a picture exists somewhere of him in a winter hat with earflaps. Otherwise, on a buffoonery scale of 1 to Dan Quayle, he's down in the low single digits with Levi Parsons Morton.
Have you unearthed any fun facts about him?
That he listed Rage Against the Machine as his favorite band has been the most entertaining thus far.
We're early in the game, but Paul Ryan could seriously disrupt our entire franchise. Teddy Roosevelt and Walter Mondale were fairly sober and serious men, but there was just enough to glean from their regional affects to support the two centuries-strong thesis of the peculiar nature of the American vice president. Like [Ryan] or not, even many Democrats concede that he's smart, articulate, and fit. It's very un-vice presidential.
There is something fundamentally bizarre about the whole "noodling" thing, though.
A side note: This is the first time that both major parties have fielded a Catholic vice-presidential candidate. Had he picked Marco Rubio, though, we not only would have had the first Catholic VP slate, but the first Mormon/ex-Mormon ticket.
What's the status of the Veeps movie?
We had our first screening of Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance in Coloma, Michigan, on August 4, to a mixed crowd of libertarians, independents, Republicans, Obama Democrats, and the former third party mayor of a well-known New England city, all sitting elbow to elbow enjoying the film. I'm proud that, in this age of partisan rancor, we're able to bring together persons of every ideological stripe, albeit at the expense of the dignity of the executive branch.