Hail To Vice Presidents: America's Executive Underdogs The U.S. has had 47 vice presidents, and of those only 14 ever became commander in chief. With Presidents Day just around the corner, we salute those who never rose higher than second in command, proving it's possible to be a heartbeat away from the presidency and yet as functional as an appendix.

Hail To The Veep: America's Executive Underdog

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Monday is Presidents' Day. But what about a more overlooked group, the vice presidents? Especially, the overlooked vice presidents.


BLOCK: Vice presidents do have their own march - this one called "Hail Columbia." It's the song that's supposed to be played when a vice president of the United States enters a room.

Forty-seven men have been vice president. John Adams was the first one and he ascended to the presidency when George Washington's second term ended. But only 14 other vice presidents have gone on to the top job. And it's the rest of them we want to salute now; those who quietly shrank from the national stage. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Only 13 other vice presidents have gone on to the presidency, for a total of 14.]

SIEGEL: It's been tough for many of them. Vice presidents have been known to endure obscurity and even ridicule. Prominent U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey became President Lyndon Johnson's vice president, only to become the target of musical satire by Tom Lehrer.

TOM LEHRER: (Singing) What ever became of Hubert? Has anyone heard a thing? Once he shone on his own, now he sits home alone and waits for the phone to ring.

SIEGEL: The vice presidency swallowed Hubert Humphrey, just as it did Dan Tompkins, Billy King, Bill Wheeler, Tommy Hendricks, Levi Morton, and many more.

BLOCK: Yes, it is possible to be a heartbeat beat away from the presidency, yet as functional as the appendix.


SIEGEL: Now, there certainly are ways to escape being forgotten as vice president. Thomas Jefferson's first vice president was Aaron Burr. He kept his name in the history books by taking the shoot-someone-prominent approach. That's why everyone knows his name. But as for Jefferson's vice president in his second term - you know, George Clinton?


SIEGEL: No, not that George Clinton, the funk master. We're talking about New York Governor George Clinton.

BLOCK: Indeed, New York has given us more vice presidents than any other state. Vice President Clinton is honored with a bridge over the Hudson River, the George Clinton Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge.

REVEREND KENNETH WALSH: Frankly, most people call it the Rhinecliff Bridge.

BLOCK: That's the Reverend Kenneth Walsh. He's pastor of the Old Dutch Church in Kingston. Vice President George Clinton is buried in its cemetery. Actually, Clinton was buried first in Washington. He was re-interred in Reverend Walsh's graveyard.

WALSH: When he was buried here in 1909, it was with great ceremony. There are actually photographs of people standing next to his skeleton - rather gruesome.

SIEGEL: Another VP New Yorker, another churchyard.

ROGER WALTERS: My name is Roger Walters. I'm the junior warden at the St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. I'm standing in the west yard near the statue that we have of Daniel D. Tompkins, vice president under President James Monroe.

SIEGEL: According to historians, Tompkins spent much of his vice presidency drunk. Despite that, Manhattan's Tompkins Square is named after him.


BLOCK: James Schoolcraft Sherman was another New York vice president. He served under William Howard Taft, which sounds very painful, come to think of it. Sherman, according to sources who keep track of such things, was the first sitting vice president to fly in an airplane. And folks in his hometown of Utica, New York have not forgotten him.

FRANK TOMANO: James Schoolcraft Sherman put Oneida County in central New York on the national spotlight.

BLOCK: That's Frank Tomano, volunteer at the Oneida County Historical Society Museum.

TOMANO: There are two streets named after him - Sherman Place and Sherman Avenue. And there is a statue of the man on one of Utica's busiest highways.

SIEGEL: If you go by where our vice presidents were born, then Kentucky is the second busiest hatchery of VPs. But Indiana lays claim to the second most vice presidents associated with a state.

DAN JOHNS: We're a hotbed for vice presidents.

SIEGEL: Dan Johns is curator of the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington, Indiana. He includes men associated with Indiana, but born elsewhere.

JOHNS: Schuyler Colfax, Charles Warren Fairbanks, Thomas Andrew Hendricks, Thomas Riley Marshall.

SIEGEL: And, of course, the center's founder, J. Danforth Quayle.

Let's concentrate on Thomas Riley Marshall. He was Woodrow Wilson's vice president. He was considered to be a funny guy. While he was presiding over the Senate, as a long-winded member was cataloging the nation's many needs, Marshall whispered an immortal phrase.

JOHNS: What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.

SIEGEL: I've been trying to do the inflation in my head. A five-cent cigar in the Wilson era was not as cheap a cigar as it would have been many, many years later.

JOHNS: I'm thinking it would not be.


BLOCK: The state of Maine has given us two vice presidents. One, was Nelson Rockefeller. In the 19th century there was another.

DANA LIPPIT: That would be Hannibal Hamlin.

BLOCK: And that would be Dana Lippit. She's curator for the Bangor Museum and History Center. Hamlin served as vice president in Abraham Lincoln's first term; the term he wasn't assassinated in, so Hamlin wasn't elevated to the presidency. Andrew Johnson has that privilege. But Hamlin is not entirely forgotten. A statue of him stands in the U.S. Capitol and another in a public park in Bangor.

LIPPIT: He's also considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: At least in the state of Maine. And he was the first Republican VP.

The single vice president from Kansas was President Herbert Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis. And he had an ethnic heritage unique to the office.

PROFESSOR VIRGIL DEAN: The thing that we celebrate in Kansas is his Indian heritage.

SIEGEL: That's Kansas historian Virgil Dean. Curtis was brought up in a Native American community. And you can visit the Charles Curtis House Museum in downtown Topeka.


BLOCK: And you have good reason never to have heard of this next VP.

JENNIFER HANCE: He was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath in Farmington, New Hampshire.

BLOCK: Colbath had his name changed to Henry Wilson, says Jennifer Hance of the Natick, Massachusetts historic society. After Schuyler Colfax vacated the office, Wilson served as vice president in Ulysses Grant's second term.

HANCE: And what kept him from further political experience was he died.

BLOCK: But be sure to stop at his bust and read the plaque about him in the U.S. Capitol building.

SIEGEL: The list of vice presidents goes on and on. But you get the point: A lonely office and little legacy, at least until recently. But no retrospective of vice presidents is complete without including the special status of Calvin Coolidge's garrulous and talented one.

First, the year he entered office he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the First World War.


BLOCK: Then there's this, the 1912 composition, "Melody in A Major." Charles Gates Dawes, our 30th vice president, wrote it. Years later, Carl Sigman added lyrics and Tommy Edwards had a hit with the tune.


BLOCK: "It's All in the Game" was a number one on the Billboard chart for six weeks in the fall of 1958.

SIEGEL: So, Dawes is distinguished from the pack as our only vice president to have both a Top 10 tune and a Nobel Peace Prize to his name.

BLOCK: Now that's an achievement that not even a president can claim.


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