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One Heartbeat Away: Kelter Talks “Veeps”

by  in Comic News Comment
One Heartbeat Away: Kelter Talks “Veeps”
“Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance” on sale now

The story of America’s third vice president, Aaron Burr, killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel is doubtlessly familiar to students of U.S. history. But how many are familiar with Daniel Tompkins, the perpetually drunk sixth VP who put up his own fortune to defend America in the War of 1812, only to find his sloppy accounting leaving with a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars once the war was finished? Or John C. Calhoun, who schemed to reach the top office by switching his allegiance from his first presidential partner John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson, only to be discarded for Jackson’s second term?

Coinciding with the historic presidential election which saw Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden sail to victory over the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, Top Shelf published in November “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance,” a lighthearted catalogue of America’s Vice Presidents and their misadventures. Written by Bill Kelter with portraits and illustrations by Wayne Shellabarger, “Veeps” includes profiles of all forty-six Vice Presidents to date, from the comically memorable to the profoundly disreputable.

CBR News spoke with Kelter about the unusual history of Vice Presidents, the similarly unusual history of “Veeps” itself, and what we might expect from an entry on Vice President Biden in a hypothetical second edition.

“I had always been interested in public men and women who had disgraced themselves in spite of their privileged positions,” Bill Kelter told CBR News. “But by the mid-1990s, I noticed I had a percolating fascination with America’s Vice Presidents. With Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and George H.W. Bush, I started to suspect that the men we put one mortal system crash away from the highest office in the land might have a chink or two in their armor. I began mentally collecting anecdotes of the dubious behavior of our country’s Vice Presidents, thinking that someday, maybe, I might do something with them.”

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

With any work of non-fiction, there is bound to be a fair amount of research, and Kelter consulted some of the dustier tomes of his local library to get the dirt on America’s vice presidents. “I used six or seven primary texts for each Veep-mostly dry, encyclopedic tracts on the VPs. Oddly, the humorous treatments of the Veeps have been few and far between,” Kelter told CBR. “My favorite was by a great historian named Sol Barzman, who wrote ‘Madman and Geniuses’ in 1974. I’ve been trying to find out if he’s still alive because I’d love to send him a copy of ‘Veeps’ and tell him that he was the biggest inspiration through the writing of this book, but information on him has been kind of hard to come by.”

As to his favorite Vice President, or at least the one who turned up the juiciest story in his research, Kelter pointed to Franklin Pierce’s second-in-command. “William Rufus DeVane King was almost certainly gay, and his partner was likely the man who would become the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan,” the author said. “King and Buchanan lived together for nearly twenty years, and the foppish King was referred to around Washington as ‘Miss Nancy’ and ‘Buchanan’s better half.’ In fact, the two considered running for President and Vice President together in 1844.”

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

There are several mentions in “Veeps” of political slogans, rhyming tag lines for candidates that might stick in the public imagination and propel their subjects to electoral victory. “My favorite was the chant that started for James Schoolcraft Sherman when he was re-nominated as Vice President at the 1912 Republican Convention: ‘Eins, zwei, drei, vier/Sherman is the winner here!’ Kelter said. “I love the German language and would have loved to see it used more in support of America’s Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, but it wasn’t long after the 1912 convention that all things German became a little less hip in America, for obvious reasons.

“I don’t know how effective any of them are,” the author said of these slogans. “‘I Like Ike’ is certainly the one that stuck in the public imagination, and ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too’ is still remembered 168 years later. Part of what helped Walter Mondale swipe the nomination from Gary Hart in 1984 was when he hijacked the ‘Where’s the Beef?’ slogan from the Wendy’s ad campaign that was running at the time.

“Like a lot of advertising, it’s all about running a number of things up the flagpole and see what makes people salute,” he continued. “Richard Mentor Johnson ran as an Indian-killer in 1840. If William Tecumseh Sherman had been a Muslim, Johnson might have sailed to Washington in 2002 if he’d been running for a Senate seat with his 1840 slogan, ‘Rumpsey-dumpsey, rumpsey-dumpsey/Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.’ It all comes down to what’s in the water in any given year and what captures the popular imagination.

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

“My favorite opposition slogan that never happened was during the 1936 campaign when Kansas Governor Alf Landon was considering New Hampshire Governor Styles Bridges as his running mate, which had the FDR Democratic marketing wags salivating at the possibility of deploying the brilliant ‘Landon-Bridges Falling Down.'”

In the last eight years, Dick Cheney has made the role of Vice President his own, and his interpretation of the office may or may not last beyond his tenure. Asked about other influential Veeps, Kelter first named a turn-of-the-twentieth-century figure whom injected the office with a bit of significance, then moved on to men who more recently held the position. “Garret Augustus ‘Gus’ Hobart, who was William McKinley’s first VP, was the first Veep who had a substantive role as Vice President,” Kelter explained. “He was McKinley’s liaison between the Congress and the White House, and held parties for Senators and Congressmen whose votes McKinley needed to pass his legislative agenda. When Hobart died in office in 1899, a journalist named Arthur Wallace Dunn wrote, ‘For the first time in my recollection, and the last for that matter, the Vice President was recognized as somebody.’

“Al Gore and Walter Mondale redefined the office in ways that aren’t easily quantifiable, but their presidents gave them access and responsibility, and they did have a say in what their respective White Houses did,” Kelter continued. “Dick Cheney indeed made the role of VP his own, literally. After all, he led the VP search committee for W. in 2000. And who did he pick? That Cheney was actually controlling the country’s agenda was a running joke over the last eight years, but a very telling and real–and I’m sure not isolated instance–during the last two terms was when Bush asked him to go on Katrina duty–and he refused. You’ll note that we never saw Dick Cheney in New Orleans in the days and weeks of Katrina’s aftermath, so it’s clear who won that one.”

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

Kelter admits that with the humorous tone of the book complementing the often ridiculous antics of the VPs, there may be a danger that readers will not be sure when he’s joking. “I made peace with that danger a long time ago,” he said. “That’s the hazard of deadpan, but if there’s anything that makes people wonder, then that means they’re thinking about it, and that’s always a good thing.

“And there are always going to be some people who might miss the sarcasm in the end. Fourteen hours after the election was declared for Obama, I changed my Facebook status to ‘Bill is…fed up with the do-nothing Obama Administration.’ I had a handful of people chime in, certain I was serious. Honestly, he hasn’t even been inaugurated; the electors haven’t even validated the election yet.

“That said, everything in the book is factual–researched and corroborated,” he continued. “My tone may have been facetious at times, but I hope most people appreciate those examples in a Jonathan Swift ‘A Modest Proposal’ spirit. “

With the election competed and Joe Biden set to become the forty-seventh Vice President of the United States, Kelter is thinking about which aspects of the Delaware Senator’s life might have proven good fodder for “Veeps.” “I have to say that Joe isn’t going to be nearly as fun as [Republican VP candidate] Sarah [Palin] would have been,” the author confessed.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin portraits by Wayne Shellabarger

“But [Biden] has a hell of a story. He was poised to become the fifth-youngest Senator in U.S. history when he won election in Delaware in 1972. Then, not quite seven weeks after his election victory and a little over two weeks before he was due to be sworn in, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident a week before Christmas, and his two sons were critically injured. Biden was prepared to resign his seat before he even took it, saying he couldn’t be a single father and a U.S. Senator. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield convinced Biden to give it six months, and, until he assumes the Vice Presidency this January, he’s currently the sixth-longest-serving U.S. Senator. And he’s always been a family man and still takes the train between Washington, D.C., and Delaware almost daily. How cornball and hackneyed would that have seemed if you made that up? But it’s genuine. It’s the stuff of great narrative.

“But there’s also the loose cannon in Joe, and he needs at least three staffers on call to help him extricate his whole leg from his mouth when he manages to insert it, which he does often,” Kelter continued. “Witness the campaign event this year where he asked a supporter in the audience to stand up and take a bow–only to realize that the man was bound to a wheelchair.”

How will Biden rank against his Veep predecessors? “He’ll strike a very nice balance between poignancy and hair-trigger buffoonery, I think,” Kelter said. “But at the end of the day I believe he’ll bring as much if not more integrity to the office than any of the most estimable of his 46 predecessors.”

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

Kelter’s interest in Vice Presidents began to congeal into a project toward the end of the last decade, in a somewhat roundabout way. “One Saturday morning in December 1999, I was rolling off a very inebriated night. I was living in my apartment in the Corbett-Lair Hill neighborhood in Portland, Oregon,” Kelter explained, adding that this apartment contained a feature instituted by a former live-in girlfriend, who had “convinced our landlord to let us remove a hideous and antiquated beige floral linoleum from the bathroom floor and replace it with a checkerboard of 10 x 10-inch white and British Racing Green vinyl tiles. It was an improvement, but I’m a guy, so that’s as much as I thought about it.”

All of that changed in the aforementioned drunken morning in 1999. “I was brushing my teeth, swaying, and staring at the floor, when–and I still have no idea why this occurred to me–that there might be a better use for those naked white tiles and that it might be portraits of our shamed Vice Presidents,” Kelter said. “Sure, I thought: I could put them in a nice frame, and add a fact or a quote from them. It would be cool–and gorgeous.

“That was the only thing I remembered the next morning, and I was off to the library. I gathered together all the Vice Presidential books I could, found a clip-art site for a nice frame, and within two or three weeks, I had a complete bathroom floor of Vice Presidents.

Pages from “Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance”

“So, that was my creative home art project and it existed mostly for my own entertainment and that of my friends–one of my female friends remarked how it was alternately comforting and creepy to have Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller’s smirking, grandfatherly mug looking up at her from my bathroom floor while she was peeing–especially since he had died screwing a woman not much younger than her.”

Illustrator Wayne Shellabarger, a longtime friend of Kelter’s, responded to the arrangement of portrait tiles with more admiration, and photographed the floor for use in a possible future project, which eventually became “Veeps.”

Since “Veeps” is not, strictly speaking, a graphic novel, the choice to publish with Top Shelf rather than a more traditional trade publisher may seem unusual. But as Kelter explained, the book would not exist in this form without the innovative indie comic publisher. “Top Shelf chose us for this project,” he said. “Wayne published a book of his concert poster art with Top Shelf in 1996 (‘I’m Totally Helpless’), and had told Brett [Warnock, publisher] about my bathroom floor Veeps projects, mentioning that we were thinking of doing a deck of Veeps playing cards. It seemed perfect: 46 Veeps, so we could market it as ‘America’s Veeps–just short of a full deck!’

“But Brett suggested that we do it as a book. Top Shelf already has a huge and richly deserved reputation within the comics and graphic novel community, and I think ‘Veeps’ was an opportunity to expand their profile outside of their traditional bailiwick.”

Kelter said that “Veeps” also fulfilled a personal goal. “For Wayne and I, it was a chance to finally do a book together. He’s been one of my best friends since 1987 and my creative blood-brother,” he said. “This collaboration was long overdue, and I’m so glad we finally got the opportunity to make it so.”

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