The nation’s third vice president had his strengths: he has been hailed as “one of the best presiding officers the Senate has ever seen.” Unfortunately, his political gifts were dwarfed by his role in two of the biggest scandals ever to strike the office. In an 1804 duel in Weehawken, N.J., Burr shot and killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and Federalist Papers
author held in sufficiently high regard that his image graces the $10 bill. That episode torpedoed Burr’s career — he was indicted for murder and fled to the South — but the former lawyer wasn’t done making mischief. In 1807, he was charged with treason for allegedly masterminding a plot to attack the Spanish colony of Mexico; some claimed he also planned to liberate the Union’s Western states in order to form his own empire. At his trial, Burr subpoenaed President Thomas Jefferson, who — in an early example of executive privilege — refused to testify. Burr was later acquitted.
Bush’s choice of 41-year-old Indiana Senator J. Danforth Quayle as his running mate shocked the political establishment, which had expected the longtime diplomat to pick someone more seasoned. Quayle didn’t help his case by refusing to release his academic records. He had plenty to be modest about: he had failed an undergraduate comprehensive exam at DePauw University; one of his former professors referred to him as “vapid”; and he was admitted to law school at the University of Indiana under an “equal opportunity” program for poor and minority students. Quayle earned one of the worst beatdowns in televised political history
by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, prompting a scathingly dismissive “You’re no Jack Kennedy” from opponent Lloyd Bentsen. In office, his constant verbal gaffes made him a political laughingstock. “We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward.” “I stand by all my misstatements.” “Bobby Knight told me this, ‘There is nothing that a good defense cannot beat a better offense.’ In other words, a good offense wins.” But it was the dreaded “potatoe” incident that did Quayle in. While visiting a school in Trenton, NJ, a student was asked to write the word ‘potato’ on the blackboard and Quayle urged him
to add an ‘e’ to the end. The entire nation held its belly in laughter.
Richard B. Cheney
Having served as a Congressman, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense and the CEO of oil and gas giant Halliburton, Cheney came to the White House with among the most formidable resumes of any vice president. Harnessing his intimate knowledge of the Capitol’s back alleys, Cheney emerged as the bare-knuckled architect — or, in the eyes of some, the shadowy puppetmaster — behind many of the administration’s most controversial policies. Cheney led the charge in calling for the invasion of Iraq, based on the misleading claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; curtailed domestic civil liberties; and pressed to limit restrictions on the treatment of enemy combatants. Critics alleged he played a role in the 2003 leak that outed then CIA operative Valerie Plame; his former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for making false statements during the investigation of the incident. The bellicose veep also swore at a colleague during a Senate class photo and, adding injury to insult, delighted his detractors by accidentally shooting a hunting partner in the face.
John C. Calhoun
Though he initially aspired to the nation’s highest office, John Calhoun quickly learned to settle for — and even strive to be — number two. He was so intent on the Vice Presidency that before the election of 1824 he offered his support to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who were running against each other. When Adams won, Calhoun filled the office proudly, despite the fact that he was adamantly pro-slavery while Adams was a Northern abolitionist. In fact, he later became known as the “Arch Nullifier” for his ill-conceived proposal to allow any one state to nullify an Act of Congress — effectively an effort to protect slavery in the South. (It was rejected by Northerners and Southerners alike.) When Jackson won the following election, Calhoun continued to serve as Vice President. But he seemed to forget the cardinal rule of the second-most-powerful job in the land — keep your boss happy — and his relationship with Jackson hit the rocks over Calhoun’s decision to ostracize a Washington woman accused of adultery. The social boycott so irked Jackson — a fierce defender of the lady in question — that he fired his entire cabinet and booted Calhoun as well.