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A playful history book: Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

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The playful history book Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance proves that the vice president typically holds far more importance as an election-year campaign symbol than any real authority once in office. Despite the recent fuss over Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, the vice president traditionally holds so little influence that the U.S. government scarcely notices if he's gone. Throughout history, the veep office has been left vacant 16 times when vice presidents have either died in office or succeeded a president, for a total of 37 years with no occupant.

Featuring a hardback cover design that resembles a weathered high school text, Veeps offers puckish profiles of all the vice presidents, from John Adams through Dick Cheney. Writer Bill Kelter reveals a keen instinct for juicy anecdotes, while illustrator Wayne Shellabarger provides realistic but less-than-flattering portraits as well as amusing editorial cartoons of historical low points.

Veeps pulls the skeletons from the vice presidents' closets with undeniable gusto, recounting how sitting V.P. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, or the rumors that foppish William Rufus DeVane King was more than friends with bachelor President James Buchanan. Some vice presidents prove to be so bland and undistinguished that you can almost detect Kelter's struggle to find something worth repeating. The chapter on Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded the assassinated James Garfield, includes as much information on Garfield's killer as Arthur himself. Veeps gets a lot of mileage from Cheney's "hunting incident," but barely explores his role as one of history's most active and powerful vice presidents.

The forgotten men frequently turn out to be the most intriguing. Elbridge Gerry, James Madison's veep, would probably be lost to history had he not inspired the term "gerrymandering" as Massachusetts governor. Henry Agard Wallace, who served FDR for one term, was "a pantheistic, utopian, hybridist Agriculture Secretary who audited Presbyterian sermons and Roman Catholic masses for fun." The authors seem particularly fond of the diminutive and witty Thomas Riley Marshall, despite his marginalization by Woodrow Wilson's administration. Collectively, Veeps illuminates the flaws and foibles in a political system that manages to elevate unworthy candidates while letting talent go to waste.

The book includes four "Third Party Candidates and Notable Also-Rans" from recent years, including Geraldine Ferraro and her anti-Barack Obama gaffes from 2008. Palin goes unmentioned, probably because the selection came too late for press time, and the omission must be agonizing for the authors. Perhaps they'll demand a recount.

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