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The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency

The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency

by Jeremy Lott

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What Do You Know about America's Vice Presidents?

(The official quiz that you, the reader, should take right now to determine if you need this book)

  1. How many vice presidents went on to become president?
  2. How many sitting presidents died or were forced from office?
  3. How many vice presidents shot men while in office?


What Do You Know about America's Vice Presidents?

(The official quiz that you, the reader, should take right now to determine if you need this book)

  1. How many vice presidents went on to become president?
  2. How many sitting presidents died or were forced from office?
  3. How many vice presidents shot men while in office?
  4. Who was the better shot?
  5. Who was the first vice president to assume power when a president died?
  6. Why did he return official letters without reading them?
  7. What vice president was almost torn limb form limb in Venezuela?
  8. Which former VP was tried for treason for trying to start his own empire in the Southwest?
  9. How many vice presidents were assassinated?
  10. In the next presidential election, should you worry about the candidates for vice president?

(Bonus challenge: For extra points, name the men that the vice presidents shot!)

See answers below. No cheating!

The vice presidency isn't worth "a bucket of warm spit"

That's the prudish version of what John Nance Garner had to say about the office--several years after serving as VP under FDR. Was he right?

The vice presidency is one of America's most historically complicated, intriguing, and underappreciated public offices. And Jeremy Lott's sweeping, hilarious, and insightful history introduces readers to the unusual and sometimes shadowy cast of characters that have occupied it:

  • Aaron Burr, the only VP tried for treason
  • John Tyler, president without a party
  • Andrew Johnson, defiant drunkard
  • Thomas Marshall, who should have been president
  • Richard Nixon, underdog and daredevil
  • Gerald Ford, icon of the 1970s
  • Al Gore, the most frustrated man in America
  • And, of course, the real Dick Cheney

With crisp prose, Lott focuses on their bitter rivalries and rank ambitions, their glorious victories and tragic setbacks. At the end of hundreds of historical vignettes, interviews, and pilgrimages to obscure places, Lott concludes that the vice presidency is an invaluable political institution that tends to frustrate the ambitions of America's most ambitious politicans--an ungainly launch pad for future political success and a drunk tank for those who would imbibe too deeply of power.

Answers to Quiz!

  1. Fourteen of the forty-three presidents were vice president
  2. It's happened eight times so far
  3. Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney
  4. Aaron Burr
  5. John Tyler
  6. Because he insisted on being called "president," not "vice president" or "acting president"
  7. Richard Nixon
  8. Aaron Burr (him again!)
  9. None, though an assassin was hired to kill Andrew Johnson
  10. See answers one and two and then ask yourself, "Does America feel lucky?"

Answers to bonus challenge: Alexander Hamilton and Harry Whittington


0-4 You are a novice who should probably buy this book

5-8 You are a history buff who should love this book

9-12 You are a smart cookie who should appear on Jeopardy--and buy this book for show prep


Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The vice presidency of the United States may be an awkward, ill-defined creation, but it has now inspired the book it probably deserves, a chatty, discursive chronicle that wobbles uncertainly between Veep 101, comic fable and perceptive political commentary. Despite his lighthearted style, it's clear that Lott, an accomplished writer and widely published columnist, has not only researched his topic carefully, but is also, as his discussions of vice presidents Nixon and Tyler reveal, prepared to come to his own, occasionally unconventional, conclusions. That said, he throws in so many jokes (some good, some startlingly bad), breezy asides and anecdotes (including the revelation that the bucket filled with a warm liquid to which FDR's John Nance Garner famously compared the vice presidency allegedly contained something less appealing than "spit") that they drown out the overall story. This confusion is compounded by the way Lott's narrative is disproportionately focused on those vice presidents who made it to the White House. The vice presidency's current significance is another matter. It has, as Lott notes, become a real source of power in its own right. However, those looking for a serious understanding of the vice presidency are best advised to look elsewhere. (Mar. 11)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Read an Excerpt


Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Lott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-082-8

Chapter One

How many of you have ever heard of the Soviet Union? -Daniel Johns

The men's room at the United States Vice Presidential Museum is in fine working order-really-but its patrons are still in for a bit of a shock when they look up to see a large photo of 1980s era Dan Quayle hanging on the wall. Photo Quayle is doing what the Real-Life Quayle would have done here: looking the other way, making the best of an awkward situation.

Your correspondent pulled into the museum in late February. It's not that easy to reach, because the airport at Huntington, Indiana, is too small for commercial airlines to bother. Given the options, it seemed best to fly to Indianapolis, rent a car, and drive northeast about one hundred miles. It had snowed earlier in the week, and the fields and lawns reflected the overcast glare back at me, adding annoyance to the gloom.

So readers can probably understand why the Quayle photo made such a strong impression on me: whenever you travel to some place new, you best remember the first thing you focus on.

The bathroom also had a rather good painting of a bend in the Salamonie River, as well as another vast pic of Quayle and Bush Sr. standing on a porch. I considered venturing into the ladies' room to check out the art there-in the interest of good journalism, of course-but thought better of it.

I arrived on a Thursday. Executive Director Daniel Johns was going to give me an official tour the next day but I wanted to drop in and case the joint. The museum has two floors. The top floor is devoted to Huntington's most famous son, while the bottom floor strains to contain all the other vice presidents.

The exhibits downstairs strike a better balance of the high and the low than most political museums, with a mix of original artifacts, campaign trinkets, newspaper clippings, and old magazines from more playful times. Want to read an original account of George Washington's and John Adams's annual salaries? The Museum of the Vice Presidency has got that, along with typed and handwritten letters by vice presidents, and more.

Some of the highlights for me, were

a vinyl record titled Spiro T. Agnew Speaks Out an issue of People magazine featuring Walter and Joan Mondale sporting matching periwinkle turtlenecks

a restored porcelain pitcher pitching Levi P. Morton for vice president a white souvenir jacket from the 1985 inaugural, monogrammed for "Tony"-whoever he might be a $100 ticket to a 1954 fund-raising dinner in Milwaukee. Featured speaker: Richard Nixon Each vice president has his own exhibit with a description of his tenure in office and at least one original artifact.

Space is limited. The Gerald Ford exhibit is stuck around an odd corner, and Nelson Rockefeller's can be found above the water fountain. A historical timeline of veep lives set against major world events has been shoehorned in.


Near the front of the display area, off to the left as you're coming in, is a special exhibit that celebrates Indiana's special status in the veepstakes. With five vice presidents-Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall, and Quayle-Indiana is the second most vice-presidential state in the Union.

State Highway 9 is known as the "highway of the vice presidents" because it connects the historic homes of Quayle, Hendricks, and Marshall. In 1916, both Republicans and Democrats had Hoosiers at the bottom of the ticket. Only the far more populous New York has produced more second bananas.

The vice presidency is a marker both of Indiana's past influence and its frustrations. Not one of its five veeps went on to become president or even receive presidential nominations. The Indiana Five seem almost cursed in retrospect.

Colfax was finished off by a minor scandal and knocked off the ticket for Grant's second term. Hendricks had a national election stolen right out from under him. Fairfax fell victim to party infighting and then failed to win back the vice presidency. Marshall should have become president, but he was kept out of the White House by a scheming coterie of Wilson advisors and the first lady, as well as his own sense of decency.


As I ventured upstairs, the first thing I saw was Quayle's smiling mug again. This one was attached to a body. The life-sized photo mockup, circa 1988, is dressed in a navy blue blazer, white button-down shirt, and red tie with blue ornaments.

It's the sort of carnival prop that people set up so that you can say not so much "I had my picture taken with Dan Quayle!" but rather, "Look, I had my picture taken with this life-size cutout of Dan Quayle!"

The Quayle floor of the Museum has many of the same features as the ground floor but considerably more space. On the whole, it works, but the larger palette produces some oddities. Where the timeline of all the vice presidents is compact, Quayle's is almost garrulous. It sets Quayle family history against world events like so:

D-Day, the allies invade France at the beaches in Normandy -June 6, 1944 After a massive secret research and development program, U.S. scientists exploded the world's first atom bomb in New Mexico -July 1945 James Danforth Quayle was born at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis -Feb. 4, 1947

Both floors feature videos that loop continuously. In keeping with the museum's organizational scheme, the downstairs has a catch-all documentary about the vice presidency, while upstairs you get The Quayle Story: the Boy, the Man, the Vice President.

The film is upbeat but hardly hagiography-which serves as a good description of the whole Quayle collection. Visitors can watch the start of the so-called "battle of Huntington": reporters peppered the freshly minted vice-presidential nominee with questions about his service in the National Guard as the locals booed and jeered the effete East Coast snobs. They can learn about Nick's Kitchen, the local watering hole where Quayle first decided to run for office and launched all his subsequent, successful campaigns.


Visitors can also observe Quayle's mother, Martha Quayle, vouching for her son's determination in a way that only mothers can: by relating an embarrassing anecdote. When he was a young lad, Quayle was given a pair of roller skates and was determined to learn how to use them.

He had a hard time of it and fell a lot. She kept thinking, Gosh, isn't he going to give up? But he didn't. No matter how many times he wiped out, he got right back up and kept at it until he could skate like a Roller Derby champ.

The display cases are full of items that represent the progression of Quayle's life from child (Little League uniform, second-grade report card) to lawyer (law school diploma-partially eaten by family pooch, Barnaby) to paterfamilias (photo of the Quayles posing with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office) to politician (decorated golf bag presented to "Senator Dan Quayle") and, finally, to vice president (gavel that Quayle used to preside over the 1992 Republican National Convention).

Quayle's gaffes and failures aren't overlooked. His dismal performance in the first vice-presidential debate is there, as is the National Guard controversy, the "potatoe" incident, the Murphy Brown controversy, and every other major flap and farrago.

You are also reminded that Quayle was a giant-killer with unusually good aim. When he entered politics, it was against the advice of all of his friends. He didn't run for an open seat but instead challenged a sitting congressman and won in an upset. In 1980, at thirty-three, he defeated three-term incumbent Birch Bayh, who had been considered presidential timber until the young upstart cut him down. Quayle then went on to win reelection by the widest margin in state history.

Dan Quayle was elevated to vice president in 1989 at forty-one, making him the third-youngest veep ever. The national reaction to his candidacy was surprise and befuddlement. The local reaction tended more toward pride and defensiveness.

In the speech to his hometown, announcing his nomination as vice president, Quayle expressed his gratitude to the people of Huntington for their basic goodness and decency. He praised them when the whole nation was watching.


Those words had a lasting effect. Driving into Huntington today, you'll see a blue-and-white road sign that reads "Welcome to Huntington Home of the 44th Vice President Dan Quayle," even though Quayle has long since relocated to Arizona.

There are numerous "Quayle sightings" plaques around town, manufactured at the behest of the Dan Quayle Foundation, to indicate places that the former vice president used to frequent.

At one such haunt, Nick's Kitchen, you can still order a Quayle Burger-half a pound of ground chuck with grilled onions, lettuce, and tomatoes with fries-for $7.25. The burger wasn't Quayle's regular; it was named by the restaurant owner in 1988 on the theory that every successful politician needs a delicious gut bomb named after him.

And, of course, there's the museum, a former Christian Science church. It's located at the edge of downtown in a handsome, two-story, painted brick building adorned with double classical columns. The multiple doors in front once made it easy for large crowds to enter and exit. Now only one door opens, and an agent of the museum collects entry fees. The upstairs retains the open area, usually filled by rows of metal folding chairs, and an elevated stage with pulpit.

It's hard to imagine that pulpit gets pounded much these days. Executive Director Daniel Johns is a candid, soft-spoken guy with graying hair and a background in civil war history, public relations, and child education. ("I'm a mutt," he confessed.) One of his previous posts was at a children's museum.

His current place of employment is "becoming known as an educational museum," which means that everything is going according to plan-sort of.

When Johns came to the museum, he considered two facts: first, that Huntington is so remote that it might as well be in Canada, and second, that museums get the bulk of their visitors in the summer. He decided he'd best come up with some way to reach larger audiences for the other nine months of the year.

So: schools. Classes from Indiana schools are regularly bussed in, and Johns also takes the show on the road. He estimates that between the bussing and the road show, about eight thousand students a year learn about the vice presidents through the museum's programs.

The traveling exhibition is very popular in Long Island, New York, for some reason-perhaps because of that state's record number of veeps.


As Johns walked me through the museum, he filled me in on its history. The Huntington Public Library hosted an exhibit on the vice presidency of Quayle in 1993, and that led to the creation of the Dan Quayle Center and Museum.

The Quayle Foundation decided to expand it into a full museum for all of the vice presidents, which has been largely the product of Johns's efforts. He acquired most of the non-Quayle artifacts and built the wooden display cases himself.

The museum is "not all that well-known" to the "common person," Johns admitted, in part because it can't afford a large advertising campaign. "To do that would essentially break us," he said. The museum's total budget is about $125,000 a year. It is funded in large part by an annual local celebrity golf tournament that Quayle comes back to take part in.

Other recent vice presidents or their estates have been reluctant to pitch in. Johns characterized their collective contributions as "only bits and pieces," though with the minimal acquisitions budget, he's happy to have those bits.

Ford's people sent a few pieces. The library of the University of Maryland chipped in with Agnew items. Cheney has donated the odd item and pledged that he will consider making a larger gift once he's left office.

Johns has enjoyed the challenge of taking a young institution and trying to grow it into something larger. He's had some success. The downstairs gallery feels cramped, true. But that's better than being too sparse. The vice-presidential memorabilia on display represents about half the items available. The Quayle items are about one-tenth of what could be shown.


According to Johns, Quayle wrote a memo to the museum after he had donated his personal papers and such, saying, roughly, "Don't waste time with my baby pictures. People won't care."

However, Johns has found that people respond best to a good blend of the high and the low. With Quayle and with the other vice presidents, he's tried to find unique stories and colorful items to grab your attention and keep it.

Given American schoolchildren's general ignorance of history, that's not an easy thing to accomplish. Johns told me that when he asks children, "How many of you have ever heard of the Soviet Union?" they look at him blankly.

He illustrated the point by pointing to an official portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, sans the famous mark-of-the-beast-sized birthmark, and asking, "What's missing?" Few of the students who come through the museum know the answer.

Creative storytellers can break through where historians fail, and Johns is determined to connect with his mostly younger audience. His selection of artifacts evinces a certain playfulness that children are bound to notice and maybe even-who knows?-appreciate.

One item that Johns ranks among his favorites is a cover of Puck magazine from 1907. The caricaturist made Charles Fairbanks into a "charlie bear," as a way of contrasting the aristocratic Fairbanks with rival Theodore Roosevelt, after whom the teddy bear was named. The point about Fairbanks is deftly made: there was nothing huggable (or bearlike) about him.

He pointed to some of the other items that he's especially proud of. Charles Dawes wrote the musical number titled "Melody in A Major." It was later paired with words for the song "It's All in the Game," Tommy Edwards's biggest hit.

The record is currently on display along with an original program from Henry Wilson's funeral (which Johns managed to snag for six dollars on eBay) and a letter by William Wheeler, written in ornate, nigh indecipherable cursive that Johns had to translate for me.


Johns uses shtick to make obscure history come alive. During the tour of the Quayle wing, he warns students that something ominous happened to the future vice president while he was at law school and then affects concern about laying such heavy knowledge on impressionable young minds. They of course demand to know what it was.

Johns acted out his response for me, mock biting his knuckle and saying, "He-" dramatic pause-"got married."

He hopes the jokes help young people remember the vice presidents. Of Marilyn Quayle's inaugural ball gown, he tells the kids, "If you stand in front of the dress case just right, it looks like you're wearing it."

I wondered about a photo of Dan Quayle in hot pink shorts, running in a race for a medical charity. "Those were cool colors for that year," he answered gallantly.

Johns sends classes on scavenger hunts through the museum with lists of questions, from the crushingly obvious to real brain teasers. This forces students to invest time and energy, both mental and physical, in the vice presidency, he explains, creating the outside possibility that they will be excited by what has been unfairly assumed to be the world's most boring constitutional office.

I had to ask: Have the students ever broken anything? Johns started to answer but then hesitated. He explained that he was "going to say no," but couldn't say that in good conscience.

Certainly no "exhibit" has so far been destroyed, he said, and then rapped his knuckle on a wooden countertop for good luck. Of course, it helped that all the glass in the display cases is really clear plastic. But for the most part the kids have been well behaved.

One actual glass shelf in the gift shop was shattered, however. Johns had just finished the look-but-don't-touch-or-you-mighthurt-yourself-and-bleed-all-over-the-exhibits spiel. And then, predictably, he heard it:


As he related the story to me, Johns looked pained, as though he'd just swallowed a wasp. I wouldn't have wanted to be the accidental vandal that day.


Excerpted from WARM BUCKET BRIGADE by JEREMY LOTT Copyright © 2008 by Jeremy Lott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jeremy Lott has been published in nearly 100 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Post, and National Review. Stateside, his work has appeared in outlets from Christianity Today to Seattle's alternative weekly the Stranger. Internationally, the Lott byline has appeared in publications in Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. A contributing editor to Books & Culture, Lott's work has sparked debate from commentators of every stripe. Conservative Charles Colson has featured his articles in his BreakPoint radio commentaries and bestselling liberal author Chris Mooney called his piece on book burning and free speech the "best counter-intuitive argument ever." Lott is the author of the equally counter-intuitive book, In Defense of Hypocrisy: Picking Sides in the War on Virtue.

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