Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Americans do not have much time for number twos. Number ones are our primary interest—although we do have a certain affection for lovable losers. Frank Sinatra, for example, sang “Here’s to the Winners,” and “Here’s to the Losers,” but didn’t have any kind words for the also-rans. And number twos are, it would seem, the quintessential also-rans. Thus, our merely passing interest in our nation’s forty-nine vice presidents. Notoriously kept on the sidelines and sometimes overtly snubbed while in office, vice presidents generally receive short shrift from historians—except, of course, for the fifteen who have gone on to become president and ramped up to the number ones.
Presidential statistician-historian Ian Randal Strock’s first venture into his chosen field came in 2008 with his Presidential Book of Lists, a soup-to-nuts exploration of the lives and exploits of the chief executive. His second venture, appropriately perhaps, was Ranking the Vice Presidents, published concurrently with his book Ranking the First Ladies. At first glance, the title suggests a positioning of the vice presidents from top to bottom in terms of their qualities or political accomplishments—an undertaking all the rage now among political historians. Strock’s purpose, though, is not so much to pass judgment on the vice presidents but to provide every conceivable statistic or point of reference concerning them, right down to the most common vice-presidential first names. A more accurate title might have been The Vice-Presidential Book of Lists.
Strock begins his exploration with a look at the “average vice-president”; informing us, for example, that he is a white male (until now, of course), lives about 72 years, has four children and 1.2 wives, has a 27% chance of dying in the same year as another vice president, and so on. He then moves on in a format that aficionados of the original Book of Lists from 1977 will recognize: providing the five vice presidents who lived the longest; the tallest and shortest vice presidents; the “most popular” states for vice presidents to be born and buried in (although how this is a matter of popularity is anyone’s guess); the vice presidents who had the most and fewest children, and so on and so on.
The original Book of Lists was delightfully entertaining. It and its successors inhabited millions of American restrooms for decades. By contrast, many of the lists that Strock presents in his book should come under the heading of merely useless information. Insignificant but interesting facts are trivia, while insignificant and uninteresting facts are just data—and Ranking the Vice Presidents overflows with data. Who wants to know, for example, “The Times There Were the Greatest Number of Living Former and Current Vice Presidents,” or “The Five Vice Presidents Who Were the Greatest Number of Years Older Than Their Predecessors”? Other topics, such as the vice presidents most known for their facial hair (including Levi Morton [1889-1893], who “sported a mustache with truly remarkable muttonchops”) are more interesting but hardly compelling. And in the age of Wikipedia, lists of, for example, vice presidents who were elected president are perhaps redundant.
Readers with a deep interest in the vice presidents’ role in American politics won’t find much to absorb them until section 51, where we learn about vice presidents such as John Adams (1789-1797), John Calhoun (1825-1832), and George Dallas (1845-1849) who cast the most tie-breaking votes in the Senate; and section 52, where Strock lists vice presidents who presided over electoral vote counting. The author then veers off-topic with a long section on cabinet secretaries that many readers might consider unsolicited if not egregious, before restoring focus and listing the various amendments and regulations pertaining to presidential and vice-presidential succession.
In sum, Ranking the Vice Presidents is a disappointing work that fails to breathe life into, or generate significant interest in its topic. This is a shame because there is significant inherent interest and meaning in this woefully unexplored and misunderstood field in American political history. More broadly, there may be a lesson here for books designed to provide data in the Internet age. Information found on the Internet is notoriously unreliable and misleading—but it is easy to find, and often presented in amusing or intriguing ways, which is why people overwhelmingly prefer it. To overcome that hurdle, books such as Ranking the Vice Presidents must do something more to draw the reader in, and to enthrall and inform readers seeking not just information, but knowledge.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas.