PLANK JANUARY 5, 2013
“Joe Biden: The Most Influential Vice-President In History?” asks Michael Hirsch in the Atlantic, repeating a question he previously asked in National Journal in April. Three months ago in Foreign Policy, James Traub pronounced Biden the second-most powerful veep in history, recycling an insight first written in 2009 for the New York Times Magazine. Number one remains Dick Cheney, though HuffPost Live says Biden rivals Cheney in influence.
This latest wave of most-powerful stories is a predictable reaction to Biden’s central role in crafting the fiscal-cliff compromise (though if you ask me a more impressive demonstration of clout would have been not to let Mitch McConnell choose his dance partner). But these stories are also, as my friend Jack Shafer has documented, an evergreen, and not just when written about Biden.
Conventional wisdom has seen fit to decree every vice president going back to Walter Mondale the most powerful in history, save for George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle. These two were, during their times as number two, mocked as lapdog (“FDR had Fala, Nixon had Checkers, Reagan has George Bush”—Michael Kinsley) and dunce (I’m still unreasonably proud of my translation of the St. Crispin’s Day speech into Quaylespeak). Yet Shafer reminds us that even Poppy Bush and J. Danforth Quayle were touted (albeit unsuccessfully) as More Powerful Than You Know by White House press secretary Jim Brady (Bush) and the Washington Post’s David Broder and Bob Woodward (Quayle). (In fairness to Broder-Woodward, the message of their best-forgotten newspaper series on Quayle was less “most powerful veep ever” than “not entirely as stupid as you thought,” a revelation that hardly justified--even in that more expansive era--40,000 words in the Post nor subsequent publication as a book.)
What we can say with some confidence is that the vice presidency has always been worth a good deal more than a bucket of warm piss, and that at least since Harry Truman became president in 1945 it’s been a pretty reliable steppingstone to the presidency. In the modern era vice presidents have tended to be powerful even when they didn’t become president, probably because their selection has been based less on party loyalty or geographic, demographic, or ideological balance and more on perceived aptitude and compatibility with the chief executive. I agree with the consensus that Dick Cheney was history's most powerful veep (not least because he did the hiring), though Cheney experienced a rapid loss of altitude during George W. Bush’s second term. The other contenders—Mondale, Gore, and Biden—have all been powerful to roughly the same degree. The vice president lampooned as Alexander Throttlebottom on Broadway or, more recently, Selina Meyer on HBO, has for more than a generation been a hoary anachronism. Powerful veeps aren't news. Time to stop pretending that they are.