Constitutionally-speaking, the job of Vice President of the United States is a powerless vocation. Veeps only vote when the Senate is tied, and they only get executive powers if the President dies. The title has been called insignificant by some of the men who’ve held it, but the American people have come to expect a certain level of political competence and general likeability from those who take the oath of office.
Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence failed to live up to those reasonable expectations, casting the historic tiebreaking vote that confirmed President Trump’s controversial Education Secretary pick, Betsy DeVos, whose only qualification for the job appears to be donating money to the GOP. She is such a poor choice that two Republicans Senators voted against her, making Pence’s vote critical. A move like this, in a country that already struggles with education and related problems, like the widening income gap and increased crime rates, could well define Pence and make him one of the worst Veeps in the nation’s history.
For comparison’s sake, check out six vice presidents who fell far short of expectations. And keep in mind that Pence is only just getting started—imagine how much awfulness he can cram into four years!
John C. Calhoun (1825–1832)
Fighting vehemently in support of slavery is the quickest way to earn your “I’m the worst” badge. Calhoun had aspirations of being president, but he failed to get key endorsements during the election of 1824. Calhoun was instead endorsed as a candidate for vice president and won, but he and President John Quincy Adams did not see eye-to-eye, especially on slavery. Calhoun also served as VP under Andrew Jackson, but Jackson’s Tariff of 1828 was not in the best interest of Calhoun’s beloved South Carolina. Ultimately siding with the state, Calhoun resigned with three months left in his term so that he could represent South Carolina in the Senate and, among other things, defend slavery as a “positive good.”
Aaron Burr (1801–1805)
Aaron Burr was regarded as a skilled and fair president of the Senate, but ask fans of the hit Broadway play Hamilton when and where Aaron Burr’s political career ended, and they will tell you that it was a summer morning in Weehawken, N.J. In 1804, the sitting Vice President engaged in a duel with former Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton. The feud was the result of many years of personal and political disagreements, and it ended with Hamilton’s death. Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey. He finished his term as vice president and was never prosecuted, but the persecution and waning respect for him as a politician overshadowed all that he had done throughout his career.
Daniel Tompkins (1817–1825)
James Monroe’s Veep has a public park, a county, a town, and various other sites named after him in his home state of New York, but that doesn’t mean he was good at his job. By most accounts, Daniel D. Tompkins spent much of his time in office completely wasted, a habit some say stemmed from his personal financial troubles. The job doesn’t have the most important duties, but the person chosen for the position should still be sober enough to get it done.
Thomas Marshall (1913–1921)
It’s hard to be good at your job when you don’t respect it. Woodrow Wilson’s VP Thomas Marshall decided (in his words) to “acknowledge the insignificant influence of the office” and openly mocked his position. Marshall stopped attending cabinet meetings after the first one because he felt that he “would not be listened to and hence would be unable to make any contribution.” His sense of humor was one of his defining characteristics, but not everyone appreciated his ill-timed jokes.
Spiro Agnew (1969–1973)
Spiro Agnew served as the 39th Vice President of the United States under President Richard Nixon and became the first Veep in history to resign because of criminal charges. In 1973, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland for tax evasion, bribery, and extortion during his time as governor. Under an agreement with the Department of Justice, Agnew avoided jail time by pleading no contest to tax evasion and reluctantly resigning from his post. He was disbarred for his plea.
Another knock against Agnew is that his golf game was weak. During a tournament in 1973, Agnew hit three people with two shots into the crowd of spectators. It’s not shooting someone in the face with a shotgun, but it’s still pretty bad.
Dan Quayle (1989–1993)
Dan Quayle’s frequent misstatements were like cannon fodder for the press during the George H.W. Bush administration, but one error outshines them all. During a visit to an elementary school in New Jersey in 1992, Vice President Quayle helped facilitate a spelling bee...but not really. When a 12-year-old was asked to spell “potato” on the chalkboard, Quayle informed the student that he had forgotten the “e” at the end of the word. To be fair, Quayle was consulting an incorrect flash card provided by the school, but the card should not have been necessary.