"First in Line"

Vice presidents hold a unique and important office, operating sometimes in the center of the action and sometimes on the sidelines. Forty-eight vice presidents have served the United States. Nine vice presidents were catapulted into the Oval Office during their vice presidency by the death of their boss from sickness, assassination or, in one case, by his resignation. Only George H.W. Bush was elected president after serving full terms as vice president during the 20th century; prior to him, Martin Van Buren, in 1836, was the last vice president to attain the prestigious office.

The office of vice president has often been mocked. Some vice presidents who became presidents, such as Andrew Johnson and John Tyler were ineffective occupants of the White House. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president for his first term, said the vice presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Yet Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson became some of the most significant presidents.

In “First in Line,” Kate Andersen Brower interviewed more than 200 people, including all six living former vice presidents, their families, close friends and insiders to reveal the nature of the relationships between presidents and their vice presidents.

Some ties have been frigid. “The vice presidency was torture for a man who had run the Senate and was used to commanding attention when he entered a room,” Brower quotes Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower told a reporter in 1960 that he could not think of “a specific accomplishment of his vice president.”

Gerald Ford called his vice presidency the worst eight months of his life. On the other hand there was the “bromance” between Obama and Biden who genuinely liked each other and worked closely together. In depicting the Bush-Cheney administration, Brower writes: “If Cheney was Darth Vader in the White House, ruthlessly seeking power and using American military forces to upend the sovereignty of foreign nations, that was fine with Bush.”

In all the duos, the relationship has been complicated. As the author pierces the privacy of the White House, she uncovers a mix of emotions held by the vice presidents: jealousy, resentment, frustration, loneliness and admiration.

She explains how the careers of the president and vice president are intertwined to the benefit or detriment of both. George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did not get along and yet H. W. would not have been elected president without Reagan’s high approval rating. In contrast, Al Gore lost the 2000 election due to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

The curious dynamic between these two officeholders has never been examined as closely as in Brower’s report. Her work is grounded in history, politics and countless untold anecdotes. “First in Line” gives the reader a new appreciation for those holding this awkward political office and what it must feel like to be only one heartbeat away from the most powerful position in the world.

Brower’s book is engrossing; hard to put down. She even discusses the relationship of Pence and Trump. This trove of stories, secrets and life lessons fills a gap in United States’ history about the, at times, superfluous, but critical job of vice president.