The VEEPS Forgot Big Bird
Along with millions of other Americans, I wiggled my way into a comfortable position in my recliner and turned on the tube to watch what I hoped to be an animated and aggressive vice presidential debate. After about ten minutes, I discovered my interest was waning; a half hour into the debate I was looking for my 5 Hour Energy drink to help keep my eyes open. I toughed it out to the very end, but was left with the same feeling that overwhelms you when you read a particularly dull book or watch a bad movie with an inconclusive ending. I asked myself, “Why did I waste my time with such nonsense, or rather, with such ‘malarkey,’ as Vice President Biden would say?” The two candidates didn’t even argue about Big Bird, an important part of the campaign I had hoped would be the highlight of the evening.
Other than the fact that I really like that Biden word…malarkey…and will endeavor to use it more often in my daily interactions with people, I took little away from the debate. It was a draw, and a dull one at that! Television is supposed to be entertaining. This ninety minute chat was so flat in content that the requisite spin doctors found it difficult to applaud their own candidate’s performance, or even to rip into the opposition.
But then I remembered. Dull and flat and lacking in content is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when they created the office of the Vice President. If you close your eyes and let yourself drift back in time a quarter of a millennium, you can actually see the framers of our nation’s government smiling and laughing (somewhat derisively, much as Joe Biden did in the debate) as they left a blank page titled, “Duties of the VEEP.” John Adams said it best when, as Vice President under George Washington, he stated, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” V.P. Adams was never privileged to take part in a nationally televised debate, but if he had, he would have probably comported himself much like the two candidates in Thursday’s debate. It was his job.
Other Vice Presidents have seen the office in a different light…often as an office with no responsibility except to wait in the wings just in case the President dies. Lyndon Johnson summed up that attitude pretty well when he said of his years as V.P., “Every time I came into John Kennedy’s presence, I felt like a raven hovering over his shoulder.”
So all in all, the Vice Presidential debate presented the American people with a very representative view of the office. The two talked about economic numbers that are always spun in such a way that they are meaningless, and no one understands them anyway. They squabbled about Medicare and Social Security, but allowed that argument to devolve into more meaningless numbers. They discussed foreign policy, particularly as applies to Iran and Libya, but each disputed the others so-called facts in such a way that potential voters came away with absolutely no understanding of what is happening abroad.
Perhaps if they had shown us charts and pictures, such as Ross Perot or Benjamin Netanyahu might have done, we could have come away with a better understanding. But bringing real understanding of those subjects to the American people would have been decidedly un-Vice Presidential. Vice Presidents historically are not major players in government, at least not from the general public’s point of view. In that regard, Biden and Ryan played their roles to perfection.
We knew very little going into the debate…we knew very little at the end. Just as it should be. Vice Presidents should be invisible.
Just to prove my point, here’s a quiz:
Q. Who was Vice President under Harry Truman? (No fair peeking on the internet.)
A. Alben W. Barkley (Without dating myself, some of us were actually alive during
the Truman administration, and should remember the Vice President…but we don’t.
Q. For what memorable act is Alben W. Barkley remembered?
A. After his term as Vice President, Barkley was addressing a mock Democratic National
Convention at Washington and Lee University. He said to the assembly, “I’m glad to
sit in the back row. I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in
the seats of the mighty.” As the crowd cheered, Barkley slumped over, then dropped
to the floor dead of a heart attack. (You would think such an event would get at least
a short mention in our history books…but it doesn’t. Such is the lot of a Vice
Q. Who was Vice President under Millard Fillmore?
A. There wasn’t one. It didn’t seem to make any difference.
All of the above considered, I believe Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden both did a great job at the debate. I’m particularly glad it’s over.