Going Inside: 'Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance'

Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

For about two years now, the national imagination has been consumed by the presidential election, and writer Bill Kelter has been as obsessed with the campaign as anyone else.

What separates Kelter from most political junkies, however, is that he’s probably been just as interested in who the next vice president will be as who the next president will be.

See, Kelter’s long been a fan of our country’s less than proud tradition of seconds-in-command, and he’s now a published historian of the vice presidency, having written Veeps: Profiles In Insignificance, a complete history of “the platoon of rogues, cowards, drunks, featherweights, doddering geriatrics, pillars of hapless ambition, bigots, and atrocious spellers” who have held the office.

While Kelter’s work is prose, it’s heavily illustrated by San Francisco-based artist and illustrator Wayne Shellabarger, who has contributed portraits of each veep, and cartoonier illustrations of them in action (or inaction, as the case may be), and it’s being released by comics publisher Top Shelf Productions.

Top Shelf’s publisher Brett Warncock says it was a pretty easy decision for him to publish the book. Shellabarger has long been a friend of his, and one of the first books Warncock published was a poster collection of Shellabarger’s entitled I’m Totally Helpless.

As to where the inspiration for the book came from, well that’s a bit of a story.

Basically, Kelter’s bathroom floor told him to do it.

In the mid-90’s, it began to occur to Kelter that “the vice presidency wasn’t the esteemed apprenticeship that the second-highest office in the land should be, and that maybe, just maybe, it was more often than not, the last, ignominious stop in a political career of dubious repute.”

He began collecting trivia about the veeps, and after a night of drinking in 1999, he found himself in his bathroom, brushing his teeth and staring down at the alternating white and green linoleum tiles of the floor.

“I still have no idea why it occurred to me that morning aside from those bursts of inspiration that occasionally come after ingesting a gallon or two of Australian beer,” Kelter said, “But as I stood there swaying back and forth, brushing my teeth, I stared down at the tiles and with a flash I decided that those white tiles should be filled with portraits—and why not portraits of the vice presidents. I could do an ornate frame in Photoshop, I thought, and maybe an unflattering fun fact or quote about each.”

Within a few weeks, his floor was transformed, and years later he and Shellabarger talked to Warncock about maybe doing Veeps trading cards, but they were thinking book instead.

“Far be it for us to turn down the opportunity to write a book,” Kelton said.

On the eve of the presidential election, we asked Kelton about the results, and his thoughts on the second highest office in the land.

Newsarama: I found it rather remarkable to be reading about how the vice presidency was once regarded as such a useless, powerless office for so long in 2008, after it has been so transformed in the last few administrations, particularly under Dick Cheney. Is the current model of the office—with a highly engaged, second-in-command sort of co-president—necessarily a better one? Do you see it ever going back to the way it used to be, when it was simply a matter of attending funerals and waiting for the president to maybe die?

Bill Kelton: In 2004, John Kerry divided his potential picks into three categories: Each short-lister fell into the category of “Mr. August,” “Mr. October,” and “Mr. January.”

The first will be an out-of-the-box choice that will help resuscitate a wheezing campaign. A “Mr. October” is the type of VP that was chosen until recently—a pick to give the ticket geographical balance and to possibly poach a big-ticket state from the other column. A “Mr. January,” of course, is the type of VP you want with you on Inauguration Day and beyond.

You don’t see a lot of “Mr. Augusts” or “Mr. Octobers” anymore. Those relationships usually end badly and most qualified candidates won’t let themselves be considered if they don’t have some assurance that they will have a role in the administration and aren’t being selected for reasons shallow and ephemeral and merely to boost the candidate’s popularity or electability.

Sarah Palin is a “Mrs. August.”

Cheney’s power notwithstanding, an active and involved vice presidency is a very good thing. Hell, it’s our tax dollars at work. We might as well make these people useful.

NRAMA: The so-called “veepstakes” is an important part of every presidential campaign season, particularly for the media. What was it like watching all the speculation and analysis this year, after having put this book together?

BK: Well, let’s get it out of the way right off the bat that I was wrong on both my predictions.

Since February on veepsblog.com I devoted every Monday to handicapping the Veeps race for both parties. For the Dems, I never seriously considered Joe Biden until late summer, and I scratched off Sarah Palin before most of America had ever heard her name (In May, I declared that since she’d just given birth to a Down’s child, there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d be up for a grueling fall VP campaign, on top of tending to a special needs child and governing the state of Alaska).

The primaries were like football playoffs. I couldn’t get enough of it. And there’s never been a year like this one. I felt like we’d really set up our tent at the right time.

NRAMA: Well, speaking of timing and Palin, admit it—You must have regretted doing this book now instead of waiting a few more months as soon as you heard McCain's pick, didn't you?

BK: That’s why we’re going to have to tell the world about this book—so we can sell out this run and get a second printing, with chapters on Governor Palin and Senator Biden. One will go in the also-rans section, and the other will be our forty-seventh chapter.

NRAMA: Was it difficult finding information on all of the men, and turning out a compelling piece on each? I think it’s safe to assume that there is much more information out there about the presidents than the vice presidents.

BK: This was a lot of fun. I really fell into a groove for about two months, knocking off about a chapter a day, four or five days a week. I sat down with my five or six or seven primary texts, and went immediately to the Senate.gov web site, which has biographies of all the vice presidents through Al Gore (whom, I just noticed, looks in his official vice presidential portrait, like Rick Springfield with too much hair gel. I’m really glad Wayne decided on the visionary Al portrait).

With my primary text sources and go-to sites, I usually didn’t have much problem pulling together a profile on each (Except for Levi Parsons Morton, which was like dental work. I found out later from Wayne that Morton was the portrait he hated doing most).

NRAMA: Do you have an opinion of America’s greatest vice president? Do you have a personal favorite?

BK: Well, there’s “greatest” and there’s “most effective.” Love him or hate him (though I’m not sure anyone besides his family, and Mary Matalin, actually loves him), but there’s never been a vice president with as much influence and sway as Dick Cheney.

Gore, Mondale, and Garret Augustus Hobart (McKinley) were utilized by their presidents, but the tired old joke that Cheney is actually the one running the country hasn’t been too far from the truth.

My personal favorite veep was Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson. He brought a sense of humor and humility to the office, and though he did his job and was ready to step in if called (he was frozen out by Wilson’s wife and inner circle after Wilson’s stroke in 1919), he never had any illusions about the importance of the office, as it had been defined by the nation’s commanders-in-chief up to that point.

One of his greatest lines—and he had many great lines—came after he left office at the end of Wilson’s second term. Asked of his retirement plans, he said, “Well, I don’t want to work…I wouldn’t mind being vice president again.”

NRAMA: Do you think either Biden or Palin fit better into the not-always-so-noble tradition of the vice presidency better than the other?

BK: Joe Biden has a very large mouth that he can often fit his whole leg up to the thigh into. But he’s got a razor-sharp wit and he’s smart as hell, and he has integrity. If he wins, he’ll leave his mark on the office in a good way—in the Gore and Mondale tradition. He can be a strong advocate for the president’s agenda, but if there’s something he doesn’t agree or isn’t comfortable with, he won’t be bashful about making his case.

In the context of this book, I didn’t have a lot of fun writing Mondale and Gore. Just because he has a sense of humor, I would only have marginally more fun writing a Biden chapter.

A Sarah Palin chapter would keep me busy for weeks. She’s quite simply not ready for the show.

So, while I don’t feel like either would visit any great degree of insignificance on the office, Governor Palin would queer the patch a lot more than Senator Biden.

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