Top Guns

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 12, 2006

"Made of indestructible stuff, the vice president of the United States was not one to be tormented by guilt or unduly disturbed by some bloodshed." -- Ron Chernow, in his book Alexander Hamilton, on Aaron Burr.

It is not true, as John Nance Garner famously declared, that the vice presidency "isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss" (a quote usually sanitized by changing it to "spit"). What's certain is that the vice presidency is our most peculiar national office. The duties are strangely vague. Vice presidents invent their job as they go. They wing it. The system favors a rogue operative, someone who cooks up schemes, develops secret handshakes and talks into microphones hidden in his lapel.

Obviously we should not be too flip about the recent vice presidential hunting mishap in Texas, but neither can we be shocked that vice presidents historically tend to wind up in the middle of nowhere, holding a smoking gun, looking at the prone figure of someone whom the vice president has just shot. It's practically part of the job.

The Constitution assigns a daffy duty to the veep: "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate," the Constitution says, then rushes to diminish the position: ". . . but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided."

John Adams, our first veep, found the job bewildering and humiliating. "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived," he wrote. That he was a heartbeat from the presidency made it all the more absurd. "Today I am nothing; tomorrow I may be everything."

Two centuries later, veeps are still highly paid gadflies, draped in the frills of power but with absolutely nothing to do. Lyndon Johnson said of his first hectic weeks as president after JFK's assassination: "Ain't near as bad as being vice president. Not being able to do anything will wear you down sooner than hard work."

The system for selecting vice presidents can be generously described as serendipitous. Presidents get elected; vice presidents get picked on the fly in the chaos of a campaign. In 1988, George H.W. Bush picked the first good-looking young blond guy he ran into. He's cute, he'll win female voters, was the basic idea. Dan Quayle ran onstage and bounced around like a gleeful puppy. Disaster. But also keeping with the tradition of the Vice President as Punch Line. These men become incarnations of personality types: the dumb, the stiff, the lethal.

George W. Bush delegated the search for a running mate to Republican insider Dick Cheney, who, after much careful contemplation, selected himself. That kind of self-assurance has helped make Cheney the most powerful vice president in American history. But even with his hunting misadventure, he doesn't come close to being the most interesting.

Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's first-term veep, was an aristocrat, war hero, U.S. senator and world-class womanizer. Henry Adams says Burr modeled himself on Napoleon, and once declared, "Great souls care little for small morals." As Jefferson's running mate in 1800, Burr wound up tied with Jefferson in the electoral college, which hadn't yet figured out how to distinguish between a vote for president and a vote for vice president. Thirty-six ballots in the House and much scheming later, Jefferson prevailed, but Burr was suspected of coveting a presidency-by-technicality.

Burr was also a bit of a gunslinger. When archenemy Alexander Hamilton besmirched Burr's honor, Burr called him out. At dawn on July 11, 1804, the two men and their seconds rowed from New York across the Hudson River and took positions on a ledge. Hamilton wasted his shot, firing far wide of the mark. Burr drilled him in the guts. Hamilton fell, saying, "I am a dead man." Burr looked into his dying victim's eyes. "H. looked as if oppressed," Burr later wrote a friend, "with the horrors of Conscious Guilt." Or perhaps Hamilton was merely upset at having been shot.

Burr, suddenly the most hated man in America and indicted in New Jersey for murder, continued to preside over the Senate. When his veep term expired, he roamed through the West and plotted to start a breakaway republic or perhaps become emperor of Mexico. He was captured, tried for treason and acquitted.

All this set a standard for vice presidents in later years, and not one has reached Burr's notorious heights. Cheney still has time, but he'll need more wild schemes and misadventures -- and maybe more ammo.

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