My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.
- John Adams, First Vice President of the United States, 1793
Since our nation’s first vice president took his oath of office in 1789, the office in which John Adams labored under the shadow of George Washington has been much maligned. Despite the scorn that has been heaped upon this second highest office in the land, 14 of its alumni have gone on to become presidents; and every four years there recurs a mad scramble in both major political parties to secure the number two spot on the national ticket. Every quadrennial since 1976, the vice presidential contest has enjoyed its own national debate; usually sandwiched between the first and second of three debates between the nominees at the top of their party’s tickets.
This year is no different. The current vice president, former Senator Joe Biden, who debated Republican nominee Sarah Palin four years ago, had to endure weeks of speculation that he would be jettisoned for a second four-year term in favor of Hillary Clinton. Biden eventually emerged for a repeat. On the Republican side of the aisle, eventual nominee Mitt Romney and his advisors considered a lengthy dance card of possible running mates, before deciding on Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan shortly before the start of the GOP convention in Tampa.
Biden and Ryan are set to go the distance in a vice presidential debate tomorrow night at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. While vice presidential debates, like junior proms, never quite capture the excitement of the real thing, they have from time to time seriously wounded participants.
The first three vice presidential debates, in 1976, 1980 and 1984 quickly faded into the mist that surrounds most candidacies for that office. However, the 1988 bout between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle – in which Bentsen belittled his opponent by asserting he was “no Jack Kennedy” – provided history’s first truly memorable one-liner birthed in a vice presidential debate. Bentsen’s condescending jab, and Quayle’s tepid response helped cement the latter’s reputation as an ineffective leader. Whether deserved or not., the incident hung over Quayle throughout his four-year tenure as vice president and his unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.