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Our Scandalous Vice Presidents

Now that Obama and McCain are on the cusp of choosing Vice Presidents, maybe it's time to take a look at 10 of the most memorable backup plans, and what they might want to avoid.

1. Chester Arthur was Canadian!

[Garfield's VP] Chester Arthur took office under the thickest cloud of suspicion. As a lieutenant in Senator Roscoe Conkling's political machine, Arthur held one of the most lucrative positions in government—collector for the port of New York. For seven years, Arthur raked in approximately $40,000 annually (about $700,000 today), running a corrupt spoils system for thousands of payroll employees. With so much money and power, Arthur developed an affinity for fancy clothes and earned the nickname "the Gentleman Boss." But his luck didn't last. President Rutherford Hayes eventually stepped in and fired him from the post.

Even with the kickback scandal and claims that he'd been born in Canada (which should've disqualified him for the vice presidency), Arthur still managed to get elected on James Garfield's 1880 ticket. After Garfield passed away 199 days into his presidency, Arthur didn't hesitate to sign the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Much to the chagrin of Conkling, the Act revamped civil service by effectively killing the same patronage system that made Arthur very, very rich. In cleaning up civil service, Arthur also cleaned up his reputation, and he exited the White House a hero.

2. William Rufus de Vane King was (Pretty Definitely) Gay

[Franklin Pierce's VP] William R. King was sworn into office in Cuba, becoming the only executive officer to take the oath on foreign soil. King had gone to Cuba to recuperate from tuberculosis and severe alcoholism, but it didn't work. He died in 1853 after being vice president for just 25 days.

That might not be the most memorable thing about King, though. It's widely rumored that the former VP was homosexual. Further still, he's suspected of being James Buchanan's lover. Neither King nor Buchanan ever married, and they lived together in Washington for 15 years before Buchanan became president. Of course, King's predilection for wearing scarves and wigs only fanned the rumors. President Andrew Jackson used to call him "Miss Nancy," and Aaron Brown, a fellow Southern Democrat, dubbed him "Aunt Fancy."

3. Henry Wallace Diverted funds to his Guru

FDR-Wallace.jpg[FDR's 2nd VP]Henry Wallace was a dedicated devotee of Eastern mysticism. While serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s, he allegedly sent his guru to Mongolia under the pretense of collecting grasses that could withstand drought. In reality, Wallace was diverting funds to help his guru hunt for evidence that Christ had visited Asia.

But it wasn't Wallace's spiritual beliefs that landed him America's No. 2 job. Wallace was a big Franklin Roosevelt fan and supported his entire platform, which is why Roosevelt handpicked him as his third-term running mate in 1940. Wallace wasn't popular with the Democratic Party, but when Roosevelt made it clear he wouldn't run without him, the party acquiesced.

As vice president, Wallace made many international goodwill trips. Most famously, he traveled to the Soviet Union, where he experienced a political transformation that resulted in him becoming an avowed Soviet apologist. His communist leanings did nothing for his image, especially once he became secretary of commerce under President Truman. In 1948, Wallace unsuccessfully ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket, espousing views that sounded shockingly Marxist. He even described corporations as "midget Hitlers" attempting to crush the labor class.

But nobody can say Wallace didn't know how to own up to his mistakes. In 1952, he recanted his support of the Soviet Union in a magazine article called "Where I was Wrong." By then, however, his political career was over. Wallace spent the rest of his life conducting agricultural experiments on his farm in New York. [Image courtesy of Ron Wade Buttons.]

4. Richard M. Johnson's 3 black mistresses

[Van Buren's VP]Despite his credentials as a war hero and a Kentucky senator, Vice President Richard M. Johnson was never accepted in Washington. Perhaps that's because he dressed like a farmhand, cursed like a sailor, and made no secret of his three black mistresses, who were also his slaves. The first mistress bore him two daughters before she passed away; the second tried to run off with a Native American chief, but Johnson captured and resold her; and the third was the second one's sister. Johnson attempted to introduce this third mistress into polite society, but the couple wasn't well-received.With the support of Andrew Jackson, Johnson landed the vice presidency under Martin Van Buren in 1836. After four years of public relations disasters, Jackson withdrew his support. Nonetheless, Van Buren kept Johnson on his ticket, and the two lost their re-election bid in 1840.

5. Aaron Burr was a Cassanova

burr.jpg[Jefferson's VP] No story on vice presidents would be complete without Aaron Burr—best known for shooting and killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. After the incident, Burr went back to presiding over the Senate. From there, he plotted a treasonous conspiracy to become emperor of the western United States and Mexico.

The plan could have worked, but one of Burr's co-conspirators ratted him out. He was tried in 1807 before the Supreme Court, which found him not guilty, mainly because he hadn't actually committed the treason yet. A free man, Burr turned his sights on Florida. He went to France and tried to convince Napoleon Bonaparte to help him conquer the swampland, but that plan foundered, too.

Although his political high jinks often failed, Burr consistently found success with the ladies. After his wife died in 1794, Burr remained a bachelor for 40 years, making the acquaintance of several eligible socialites. He enjoyed flirtations with Philadelphia debutantes, as well as a widow named Dolley Payne Todd—later known as Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison. At age 76, Burr married a wealthy widow of ill-repute and plundered her fortune. Citing numerous infidelities on his part, she filed for divorce and was actually granted it. Unfortunately for her, it came through on the day Burr died.

6. John Tyler borrowed cash to get to his inauguration

[Harrison's VP] When President Harrison succumbed to pneumonia in 1841 after only a month in office, John Tyler became the first vice president to take the Oval Office as the result of a president's death. Understandably, he was totally unprepared for the job. Like previous VPs, Tyler had expected to carry the title without responsibilities. He'd actually taken such a lax approach to the position that he was enjoying life on his Virginia farm when a messenger brought news of Harrison's demise. Tyler had to borrow money from a neighbor to catch the riverboat back to Washington.

As president, Tyler's administration was largely unremarkable, except that he annexed the Republic of Texas and became the first president to have Congress override his veto. Tyler was also the first president to receive no official state recognition of his death. Why? By the time of his passing in 1862, he was an official in the Confederacy.

7. Andrew Johnson took the oath Sloshed

andrew-johnson.jpg[Lincoln's VP] Andrew Johnson took his 1865 vice-presidential oath drunk as a skunk and belligerent as hell. Having grown up dirt poor, Johnson felt the aristocracy in Washington had abused his kinfolk. Glassy-eyed and smelling of whiskey, he reminded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and pretty much everyone within hearing distance that they owed their positions to "plebeians" such as himself, then kissed the Bible and staggered away.

Needless to say, his address was poorly received. The New York World opined, "To think that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish creature and the presidency! May God bless and spare Abraham Lincoln!" Unfortunately, God didn't. The South surrendered six days before Lincoln's assassination, leaving Johnson to handle Reconstruction—a job he bungled so completely that Congress moved to impeach him. Johnson avoided being booted out of office by just one vote.

8. John Breckenridge Hid Out in Cuba

[Buchanan's VP] By all accounts, John C. Breckenridge was a Kentucky gentleman in the grandest sense. He had an impressive career as a lawyer and a representative in the Kentucky House. More notably, at age 36, he became the youngest vice president in history. But, like Aaron Burr, things took a turn for Breckenridge when he was charged with treason. In September 1861, only a few months after his vice presidential term had ended, Union and Confederate forces invaded his home state of Kentucky. Breckenridge cast his lot with the Confederates, and the federal government promptly indicted him.

Breckenridge headed south and became Jefferson Davis' secretary of war. But when the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, Breckenridge was forced to go on the lam. He hid for the next two months in Georgia and Florida before escaping to Cuba. Breckinridge, his wife, and their children spent the next four years in exile, wandering through Canada, England, Europe, and the Middle East, until President Andrew Johnson issued a General Amnesty Proclamation on Christmas in 1868. The following March, Breckenridge returned to the country with his family, but his name wasn't officially cleared until 1958, when a Kentucky circuit court judge dismissed his indictment.

9. Nelson Rockefeller tore down that wall

2rockefeller.jpg[Ford's VP] Nelson Rockefeller, as his name suggests, was really, really rich. After a brief stint managing his family's property and running oil companies, he turned to public service by taking a job in the State Department.

Rockefeller quickly gained a reputation as a rather strong-willed person. In 1933, he commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a large-scale mural in the lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. The mural featured a likeness of Vladimir Lenin, and the overt reference to communism offended Rockefeller. He asked Rivera to change it to a face of an unknown man, and the artist refused. In response, Rockefeller had the whole mural torn down and carted out in pieces.

Rockefeller was equally dissatisfied with his gig as vice president. He refused to run with Ford on the Republican ticket in 1976.

10. Spiro Agnew, the Archie Bunker of the White House

[Nixon's VP] Spiro Agnew, who preferred to be called Ted, was a seemingly safe choice for Richard Nixon's running mate in 1968—mainly because he faded easily into the background. But once in office, Agnew thrust himself into the limelight. By delivering a series of divisive speeches defending the Vietnam War and attacking peaceniks, Agnew became the crotchety Archie Bunker of the White House. He lambasted his enemies, peppering his rants with phrases such as "supercilious sophisticates," "vicars of vacillation," and "pusillanimous pussyfooting."

Still, much of the country loved him, especially as he remained unsullied by the Watergate scandal. When word got out that the Justice Department was investigating him for extortion and bribery, Agnew vehemently denied the charges. In September of 1973, Agnew spoke at the National Federation of Republican Women in front of thousands of screaming fans, many bearing "Spiro is our Hero" signs. He swore to them, "I will not resign if indicted!"

Two weeks later, however, he did just that. Agnew agreed to a plea bargain that involved leaving his post as vice president and paying $150,000 in back taxes. A former lawyer, Agnew was disbarred and took up writing to pay off his debts. In 1976, he penned The Canfield Decision, a tale of a vice president who becomes involved with militant Zionists and is consumed by his own ambition. In 1980, he covered some of the same ground in his autobiography, Go Quietly "¦ Or Else.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Stacy Conradt
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politics
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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