First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power
by Kate Andersen Brower
First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power, the new book by Kate Andersen Brower, is full of fascinating tidbits of information, as was also true of her previous books First Women and particularly The Residence. Readers will learn, or be reminded, that unlike all the President's other advisors, the Vice President is singularly difficult to remove from office, for instance (the Senate needs to impeach); the Vice President's retirement income is not guaranteed (they need either to have served in the Federal government already or to have served more than one term as Vice President); modern vice presidents, like modern presidents, are accompanied constantly by the nuclear launch codes (unclear whether or not the vice president can go rogue and use those codes without the president's knowledge … I'm hoping not).
Readers are reminded that the vice president's salary is half that of the president, and that the vice president's Secret Service protection detail is pulled six months after they leave office. And of course Brower provides all the finest quips and quotes about the vice presidency, from John Nance Garner's assertion that the office “is not worth a bucket of warm piss” to Spiro Agnew's quip that the vice presidency was “that rare opportunity in politics for a man to move from a potential unknown to an actual unknown.”
And yet, for Brower's wonderful discretion and wide-ranging reading, the most striking little detail of First in Line is also in a way the most comforting in 2018: that current serving Vice President Mike Pence regularly consults with his predecessor, Barack Obama's beloved Vice President Joe Biden.
The Trump White House features prominently in First in Line, naturally. Brower looks at thirteen vice presidents, starting with the Johnson administration and winding the story all the way down to the present day, and she separates these terms into types: there are power-dominance relationships, where the President very emphatically wants to retain the spotlight (Brower points out that Johnson famously ordered that his vice president travel without a press entourage), there are working partnerships, in which presidents delegate large amounts of unofficial power in their vice presidents (she credits the Carter-Mondale team with breaking this ground in the modern era and obviously cites the dynamic between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney), and, in rare instances, there's a relationship that ripens into an actual friendship, as in the case of Obama and Biden.
On such terms, it's easy to see where the Pence-Trump arrangement falls. “Pence and Trump have a relationship more like the domination-subordination that characterized the alliance between Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey than the friendship that evolved between Obama and Biden, or the professional partnership during the Bush-Cheney years.” And yet, despite the unfailing diplomacy of Brower's handling of her material, her chapter on Pence undermines any attempt to read it as one reads the previous chapters. Brower choose her quotes with exquisite care, but the impression that, unlike his predecessors, Pence works with a volatile and slightly brain-damaged toddler is unavoidable. Other vice presidents had to contend with the temper or the jealousy of the presidents, but none before Pence has had to wonder from day to day which aspects of observable, verifiable reality their boss was going to expect them to deny in public.
As Brower masterfully reconstructs, the office in modern times has faced some momentous turning points, none greater than the one faced by Gerald Ford:
Less than a year after being confirmed as vice president, Ford became president when he took the oath office on August 9, 1974, three minutes after he and his wife, Betty, escorted the Nixons to their waiting helicopter on the South Lawn. It marked the third time in a little more than ten years that a sitting or former vice president became president. Ford recalled the moment, just the day before, when Nixon told him his was resigning. “There was no gushing, there was no dramatic embrace,” he said. “There was just the recognition on the part of both of us that the time had come, and his choice had been made and my fate had been decided.”
And while it's true that the vice presidency has changed in some fundamental ways since Harry Truman deadpanned that the vice president “simply presides over the Senate and sits around hoping for a funeral,” it becomes equally clear throughout Brower's book that the nature and tenor of the job is entirely dependent on the President at the time. There are strong arguments why this should not be so, but they're not a part of this book's design. Rather, this is a detailed and deliciously quotable overview, something with a lighter touch and a far more usefully narrow scope than Jules Witcover's impressive 2014 book on the same subject. It's an engaging run-down of what is in many ways the least-enviable job in America.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.