[Editor's Note: Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger are the writer and illustrator, respectively, of Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance. Visit their website at www.veeps.us
If you were dropped into the news cycle once every fourth summer and listened to the frenzied speculation surrounding the presidential nominees' protracted pageant of their would-be running mates, you might think that the choice of that second name on the ticket was the first and most important decision a presidential aspirant could make. That first executive selection that would offer a window into what choices they might make as president. It only seems appropriate that they would commit to a carefully considered, meticulous, and maybe even agonized deliberation to find that one person who most closely complements their passions and platform; that person who will be there to pick up the baton and help realize their vision for their presidency and the future of the country if, God forbid, tragedy intervenes and the vice president has to take the reins of power.
That's a nice thought, and a very noble wish, but history shows that most presidential nominees probably put more thought into whether they want venison or foie gras served at their inaugural dinner. Yes, no one runs for the highest office in the land thinking they might not be around to see their agenda realized, but these things happen. Statistically, they happen a lot. But no would-be president cares to think what might happen to their legacy if they leave Washington, D.C. in a spruce box. If they did, a good portion of our vice presidential nominees would have been spared the fool's errand of a national campaign and could have continued sullying their reputations in their day jobs.
We dropped Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance into the water with one titanium truth for our rudder: With precious few exceptions only serving to prove the rule, for over two centuries, our presidential candidates select our vice presidential nominees every four years and then put them in the garage and forget about them — like the exercise bike they bought to convince their wives they were serious about not being obese anymore or the air hockey table that they said would promise more quality time with the kids.
Election after election, Veep choices are tapped to win a state or two, placate a snarling voting bloc, or to demonstrate to the candidate's coveted electorate that they are more than the adversarial pundits are making them out to be. Assuming their ticket gets elected, their Veep gets three hots and a very nice cot, and it's understood they'll be available for the tedium of funerals, insincere but diplomatically necessary overtures to third-tier African nations, or showing up to look sad but determined when a county seat in Missouri takes on a foot or two of floodwater. Beyond that (and anything else that the president doesn't want to do) — well, they're getting a paycheck. What else do they want?
And the beauty in this calculation has been that... no one has ever really cared.
We knew we'd tapped into a rarely-considered mother lode of American history when we delved into the Veeps Project. There have been a few significant Veeps — Albert Gore, Walter Mondale, and Garret Augustus Hobart. But none of them ever won the Big Chair, so how significant were they really? Dick Cheney could be written off as an anomaly — after all, he selected himself for vice president, after serving as the head of George W. Bush's vice presidential selection committee.
But then came Sarah. John McCain has done little this year befitting his "Maverick" image. In his selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, though, while he didn't win the presidency, he has accomplished something singularly remarkable: He has permanently redefined not only how we think of the selection of America's vice presidents, but that we think of them at all.
In 1968 and 1988, the media was momentarily taken with the perplexing selections of Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as Richard Nixon's running mate and Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as George H.W. Bush's ticket choice. The New York Times called Nixon's selection of Agnew "the most eccentric political appointment since Caligula named his horse a consul" and Dan Quayle was called "dumber than shit" by a future GOP presidential candidate whose judgment would be called into question for his own running mate selection.
But neither VP pick captured the public's imagination very far into their respective election cycles.
Agnew was a brazenly corrupt, racist bully, but he played little part in whether or not Nixon was elected.
Everyone wondered how Dan Quayle would fare in his October 1988 debate with Democratic VP nominee, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Quayle, in fact, fared horribly ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.") but he never seemed dangerous and George H.W. Bush seemed fairly durable, so American voters elected him. If they had any nagging fear that his manchild running mate might have to step in for him someday, you wouldn't know it by the drubbing he gave Michael Dukakis and his far more competent running mate.
Between John McCain's erratic, often bizarre campaign, and the elephant in the room of his age and medical history, and the dozens of carts of baggage that Sarah Palin brought on their would-be journey to the White House, this may have been the election that Americans finally wondered, with their votes, "What if?"
What if we suddenly had a president who boasted as her foreign policy bonafides the fact that one tiny backwater in her state was within squinting distance of a desolate patch of rock that just happened to belong to Russia? Who would bring to the White House only a two-year stint as governor of the 47th most populous state in the union and as mayor of a city that, by one U.S. Census estimate, ranks somewhere in the neighborhood of the 3,644th largest city in America (with all due respect to the mayor of Cos Cob, Connecticut)? Who couldn't name a single Supreme Court case besides Roe v. Wade that she disagreed with, or a single newspaper that she read to keep up on the affairs pertinent to the country that she would be called upon to lead?
It's escaped most of our presidents that their vice president might have to be there to fulfill their legacy. Consider that nine of our 46 VPs inherited the office by death or retirement — and five of them were called to do so within one year of taking the oath as vice president.
Barack Obama won this election largely on his own merits, but this would probably have been a very different campaign if John McCain had selected Mitt Romney or even Tom Ridge as his running mate — or even that boyish, amateur exorcist, Bobby Jindal. Endorsements are the bricks that shore up the foundation of a campaign, and with every passing week in this campaign, one Republican or traditionally conservative hornblower after another — George Will, Kathleen Parker, Bush speechwriter David Frum, Senator Chuck Hagel, former Senator Lincoln Chafee, Charles Krauthammer, General Colin Powell, former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan, Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, Richard Cohen — either endorsed Barack Obama or withheld their support for John McCain in part because of their apprehension about Sarah Palin possibly having to take the wheel of a rig quite a bit bigger than the Straight-Talk Express — the leadership of the world's largest democracy.
We were pretty proud of the theme we established for Veeps: that is, Profiles In Insignificance — the nearly uninterrupted parade of incompetents and buffoons that have been allowed so close to America's top office that they could steal fountain pens and sit in that big swivel chair when the boss was out of town or in the bathroom. That's all changed, thanks to John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin. Alaska's Governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee has cast a permanent and glaring spotlight on America's #2 office. America has made itself part of the vetting process.
So the idea of Veeps as a cottage industry for us is deader than Elbridge Gerry. If we hoped to live into our golden years of ill-equipped moron after miscreant after empty suit after doddering fool after good-hearted but woefully unqualified third-tier government servant being elected vice president and the endless royalties of quadrennial reprintings of Veeps: Profiles In Insignificance, that ship has sailed... right into the rocks. And it's a wreckage that's going to be sitting there for years to come, reminding greater America of the folly of the two centuries when they never bothered to care who was sitting one mortal tragedy away from becoming the leader of the free world. The country is paying attention now.
Thanks, Sarah. Thanks a lot. Damn you.