With the presidential election just a couple of days away, all attention is turning towards this important moment in our country. We all know it has been an interesting campaign season, but one of the more interesting storylines has been that of the vice-presidential candidates. Or should we say candidate? Sarah Palin has grabbed the nation's attention while Joe Biden has, you know, occupied some space and consumed some oxygen here and there. What most people don't realize is that people have laughed at the vice-president before Governor Palin rolled around. With so much attention being given to the number two spot, it is a little bit more than a happy coincidence that Top Shelf is publishing a book in November on the #2 spot on the presidential ticket. Veeps by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger details the often humorous history of the most prominent sidekick in the nation.
I interviewed writer Bill Kelter recently about the presidential race and the creative process with his upcoming book.
BJM: Let's start from the beginning; why the interest in Vice Presidents? What fascinates you about these seemingly insignificant figures?
BK: A lot of people are fascinated with train wrecks, and I always had a perverse fascination with powerful figures who have had power land in their laps and have for whatever reason been wont to spray their gorgeously-appointed room—with almost everything they could ever desire—with lighter fluid and drop a Zippo on the carpet.
Somewhere around the mid-1990s, as I read more and more political history, I started making a mental inventory of so many of America’s leading politicians who had brought disgrace upon their careers, and at first it seemed like so many of them appeared to have served as America’s Vice Presidents.
Take Spiro Agnew, for example. He had a bizarrely meteoric rise, in five years, from Baltimore County Executive to Governor of Maryland to Vice President in six years. A dream job, right? Well, when he came to Washington he couldn’t leave behind a kickback agreement he’d made with a number of construction execs when he was governor. A deal’s a deal, I guess, but this kind of shakedown seems like the kind of thing that should be far, far behind you when you’re the second-most powerful man in the country—and you certainly shouldn’t be making men come personally to Washington to deliver bundles of cash to you.
Nelson Rockefeller didn’t disgrace himself while he was Vice President, but I was always fascinating by his tawdry demise of a heart attack while allegedly mixing it up with his mistress, just two years after he left office. I remember Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Imus In The Morning” in 1997 describing the aftermath of Rockefeller dying in the saddle, as it were. His aides scrambled frantically for an hour before they called an ambulance, trying to put his clothes back on and prop him up in his chair as if he were reading a newspaper when he expired apparently in a romp with a woman 44 years his junior.
And of course Dan Quayle…well, to call him dumber than a boxful of rocks is patently unfair to rocks.
BJM: How did you guys meet? What made you want to write a book about the Vice Presidents's together?
BK: Well, I don’t know if we misled anyone with the Merle Stickney article we have linked from www.veeps.us. But we really weren’t, unbeknownst to one another, present at Spiro Agnew’s first swearing-in. Wayne would have still been in his mother’s womb at the time, and, though I was a very ambitious toddler, I think such an event was still out of my grasp. Still, Spiro Agnew was the kind of man who could captivate any young child, if only in a Voldemort sort of way.
Wayne and I went to the same high school (Hood River Valley High School, in Hood River, Oregon), but never attended at the same time. We met in 1987 at the University Of Oregon, at the urging of my brother-in-law, from whom we both took English classes at HRVHS.
We hit it off immediately and launched a handful of really great and hilarious collaborations that have never seen the light of the day. They’re in the slush pile. They might yet emerge.
The Veeps Project originated from one very drunk morning at my apartment in the Corbett-Lair Hill neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, in late 1999. I was single, two years after my girlfriend had moved out. While she was there, she prodded me into nudging the landlord into letting us retile the bathroom floor. We replaced an old brown-and-white floral linoleum with alternating 10”x10” tiles of white and British Racing Green. At this point, I already had a minor fascination percolating with America’s disgraced Vice Presidents.
On that morning in question one December many years ago, I was drunkenly brushing my teeth at 7:00 AM, after a long night of imbibing, and while I was looking at my floor to kill the time while I scrubbed my chompers, for some reason, it occurred to me that a great use of these bare white vinyl tiles might be to have portraits of disgraced Vice President laminated on each, with a quote highlighting their signature indiscretion.
BJM: Let's size up the current Vice Presidential running mates on the two major tickets. First up, let's look at Barack Obama's choice Joe Biden. What do you guys make of him? What does he bring to the table for Obama?
BK: As for Biden, I said that he was a one-man rapid response team, and the perfect attack dog for the Obama campaign. I don’t know how well that’s played out so far, but he earned his paycheck last Thursday. He didn’t let himself get accused of bullying her and he was like a jackhammer stressing the Bush-McCain connection.
BJM: On the other side (the dark side, perhaps), we have the current media darling Sarah Palin. What do you guys make of her? Besides ovaries and a bit of pizazz, what would she bring to a McCain White House?
BK: Sarah Palin was a novelty pick, imposed by McCain’s handlers, to, first, seize the news cycle after Obama’s Invesco Field speech (never mind that taking the nominating speech out of the convention hall hasn’t been done since JFK moved his speech from the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960, but it was no small feat cramming 84,000 people in a stadium with an official capacity of 76,125—and we were in Denver, and it was an impossible ticket to get), and, second, to shore up the base. Both worked—McCain/Palin owned the news cycle for the next two weeks, and everyone all but forgot about Obama’s speech. As for the latter, McCain shouldn’t have had to shore up the right. The other spin originally was that picking her would attract disgruntled/disaffected Hillary voters, but that was a dog that was never going to hunt, and it was as cynical as George H.W. Bush picking Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.
She’s not stupid by any means, but she ain’t ready for The Show, to cite a Bull Durham reference, at least with her experience to this point. Leaving partisan politics out of it, I have to side with CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who said about a little over a week ago, "If John McCain wins this woman will be one 72-year-old's heartbeat away from being President of the United States. And if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, it should."
“Word” as the kids used to say. Not to drop a Hillary Obama/RFK comment, but in this case, any insurance actuarial table would suggest that there’s a significant chance that a President McCain may well leave the White House in a mahogany box. Look at how the office aged, for example, LBJ, Bill Clinton, and the current Bush. Now, look at McCain, and he hasn’t even made it through one Presidential campaign yet.
That said, if she is the one who winds up giving the State Of The Union Address in 2010 or 2011 or 2012, you can be fairly sure that it isn’t going to be her who’s actually running the country.
One thing is for sure: There has never been an election in U.S. history where we’re still talking so much about a Vice Presidential nominee more than a week after she was nominated. A lot of people tuned in out of curiosity for Dan Quayle’s debate with Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, hoping they’d see a bloody accident (and those who did were richly rewarded, with one of the greatest live television moments of all time), but Dan Quayle was merely a dunce. Sarah Palin is far more dangerous. Never mind the Couric and Gibson interviews, she’s being trained furiously and she’s learning her lessons. She’ll carry the water for the far right and she’s smart enough to take direction and trot out her inner beauty queen to effectively work any room she’s in. Back in ’88 there were the usual “heartbeat away” questions, but the then 64-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush was not that old and looked like Michael Phelps compared to the Arizona Senator his current state.
BJM: Now that we have those two out of the way, let's talk about the current Vice President, Dick Cheney. At the very least, he's been one of the most infamous Vice Presidents in the modern era. What do you think his legacy has been on the position of Vice President?
BK: After so many monumentally insignificant holders of the office, he’s clearly redefined the position—possibly to the point that it needs to be forcefully defined by the next occupant. You could make an argument that no one should be taking orders from George Bush, but he does have the bigger desk, and it’s been a running joke throughout the last two terms that it’s been Cheney running the country. That was a little less funny when it was learned that Bush attempted to dispatch his Vice President to go on damage control for Hurricane Katrina, and his VP said, in essence, “Well, I’ll do it if you want me to, but…no.”
BJM: Top Shelf Productions will be publishing your book Veeps in November. What made you guys decide to go with Top Shelf?
We didn’t choose them. They chose us—and we couldn’t have been luckier. Wayne published a book of his brilliant concert poster art (I’m Totally Helpless [http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog.php?title=172]) in 1996.
Brett Warnock and Chris Staros love a gorgeous book, and they’ve made a great investment in Veeps. These guys are champs, and when they believe in something and someone, they’re in for a dollar, in for a dime. I’ve talked to a handful of other authors who have talked about handing over their book and losing their vision. That’s never been an issue with Top Shelf in rolling out Veeps. Wayne and I have sat in rickety chairs at Brett’s desk, late at night and stupid from lack of sleep, going through the manuscript one page and portrait and illustration at a time, trying to get it right.
BJM: On the art end of the spectrum, how many sketches did each VP require? Did some get left on the cutting room floor? Can we expect a VP swimsuit special?
BK: As for the swimsuit special, good Lord, I hope not. I think we’ve all seen enough of that portion of Sarah’s 1984 Miss Alaska competition (although I suppose there are some who would argue that John Cabell Breckinridge might look good in a Speedo).
BJM: Based on many of the samples provided on your web page, there aren't many places in terms of content that you guys don't go in this book. Were there any VP stories that were just too out there, uncorroborated, or outlandish to publish?
BK: No, not really. I remember one Quayle line that turned out to be false ("I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.") Compared to so many of the factual bludgeonings that really did pour out of his mouth, that this wasn’t real wasn’t much of a loss.
Actually, there’s a Palin story that I really wanted to report on a blog entry (and hopefully in a Palin entry in a second printing of Veeps—either as an Also-Ran entry or, God help us all, Chapter 47). There was a story making the rounds through much of September that her Iraq-bound son, Track Palin, had vandalized something like 110 school buses and a judge ordered him to enlist in the military or face jail time. I knew the judge angle was pretty flaccid, at best—to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened since the 1950s, and even then maybe only in B movies about a Bad Boy who finds redemption being forced to defend his country. I was mainly interested to see if the vandalism charge was true, but besides some breathless rants from the blogosphere, and a few of them who got their calls through to progressive talk radio, there was no “there” there, and no mainstream media source ever reported it. So, it would have made a great story, but it doesn’t seem like it really happened. But again, like Quayle, the bounty of confirmed Palin stories is a gift that keeps on giving, so that this one probably isn’t true was also only a small loss.
Really, what I found in my research was that VP history was a gusher. When my fascination started, I began with just a few outlandish examples, but as I went on with researching and writing the book, it was like turning over rocks in the garden-- ugly, slimy, fascinating, wiggling things under every one.
BJM: If you had to pick a favorite VP, who would you pick and why?
BK: I’ve gotten this many times. In our movie, we rave about Spiro Agnew, but it’s a movie and we were in character—defending him in a wide-eyed, naïve, and somewhat blind way, befitting our unconditionally VP-obsessed characters--but in reality, with a straight face, the racist bully/corruption angle makes him a bit repugnant and indefensible. But damned his speeches have a great cadence.
But if I have to vote for the overall package, my pick has been and still is Thomas Riley Marshall. This was a brilliant, funny man in a job that was beneath him. Sitting in his office as tour groups passed, he one day yelled at the passing visitors, “If you look on me as a wild animal, be kind enough to throw peanuts at me.”
He summed up the regrettable reality of his office with this self-penned job description of his place in the Office of the Vice Presidency: “To acknowledge the insignificant influence of the office; to take it in a good-natured way; to be friendly and well disposed to political friend and foe alike, to be loyal to my chief and at the same time not to be offensive to my associates.”
After his second term, he was asked what he wanted to do in retirement. “Well, I don’t want to work. I wouldn’t mind being Vice President again.”
BJM: Here's the budget line. Why should people be interested in a book about the Vice Presidents?
BK: Besides Wayne’s elegant and amazingly rich portraits and illustrations, this is a treasure trove of head-scratching political tales that have escaped the attention of the curious over the last few generations. Excepting the popular tales of Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton, and Dick Cheney shooting Harry Whittington, any question about our Vice Presidents draws a Homer Simpson stare from most. That’s not a comment on our collective intellectual curiosity, or the quality of our education system. It’s quite simply an area of our history where no one imagined there was anything interesting or edifying. The office itself has been treated with so little respect—not the least of which by our Presidents, even some of those who have been Vice Presidents themselves—that it never occurred to most of us that there would be anything about the office they would care to know.
BJM: What's next for you gentlemen?
BK: I’m all for fame, six or seven printings of Veeps, a baker’s dozen or more of collaborations between Wayne and myself, and a mention on TMZ.com every two or three days. And a Blackberry. I just want to own a Blackberry.
And actually, Wayne already owns a Blackberry, so he’s already ahead of me on that point.