A poor woman had two sons. One went away to sea. The other became Vice-President of the United States. And neither poor boy was ever heard of again.
— Commonly attributed to Woodrow Wilson's Vice President Thomas Marshallnote
A repeating trope in Government Procedurals
dealing with American politics
is the pointlessness of the office of Vice-President. For much of American history Vice Presidents were chosen "to balance the ticket" or some other trivial reason, with little thought to their actual qualifications, because the Vice Presidency has no constitutional duties other than to preside over the Senate (a ceremonial task, and usually passed off on some junior senator anyhow) and no constitutional powers other than taking over if the President dies/resigns (Something that has only happened 9 times in 230 years), and casting tie-breaking Senate votes (which, while more frequent, still doesn't happen very often). Consequently Vice Presidents are commonly portrayed as useless, ineffectual, or stupid, or a combination of the above, and they become the butt of jokes. Can lead to Reassignment Backfire
when the VP succeeds to the Presidency upon the President's death.
This trope is not necessarily limited to the Vice Presidency, but can apply to other countries that have offices that are nominally second-in-command but are in fact unimportant, such as the post of Deputy Prime Minister in parliamentary systems, or the post of Lieutenant Governor in many American states.
See also Kicked Upstairs
, a broader trope for when characters are "promoted" into higher-ranking but powerless positions. Contrast Puppet King
, when the nominal leader
(as opposed to the #2) is actually powerless, or Evil Chancellor
, when the #2 is manipulating or plotting to unseat his boss.
- Zig-Zagged in The Boys: Vic the Veep is incompetent, borderline mentally retarded and doesn't even hide that he's a Vought Corporation puppet through and through, but that doesn't make him harmless. For example, as the President is about to give the order to shoot down the 9/11 airliners before they hit, Vic knocks him out with a fire extinguisher (everyone else had been staring at the screens), as Vought Corporation wanted their supers to save the day as a PR move.
- Played with in Dave. Vice President Nance is introduced somewhat ridiculously, holding a spear and carrying a ceremonial headdress and beads that he received on his African goodwill tour. (Complete Truth in Television, as the VP often gets sent on goodwill tours and visits that the President doesn't have time for.) He is also being set up as the fall guy for a scandal that threatens the Mitchell White House. However it quickly becomes apparent that Nance is easily the most decent and honorable member of the Mitchell administration.
- The Vice President attends the historic launch of the first manned mission to Mars, Capricorn One. Doctor Kelloway notes this, and regards it as a sleight by the White House, a symbolic vote of no confidence in Kelloway's leadership at NASA.
- In the movie My Fellow Americans, Matthews is really dumb (a No Celebrities Were Harmed mock version of Dan Quayle). This turns out to be partly Obfuscating Stupidity, as he is essentially the Big Bad.
- Air Force One: National Security Advisor Jack Doherty discusses this trope while being held hostage, "The Vice President in this case is like the Queen of England. She can't even buy airline tickets without talking to someone like me."
Live Action TV
- Perley Beecroft in Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, a novel about a fascist takeover of the United States. He plays no part in the power struggles.
- Harley Hudson in Advise and Consent is ineffectual and terrified of the prospect of becoming President, and generally ignored by the administration.
- In the Timeline-191 series of Alternate History novels, Donald Partridge, the second vice president of evil Confederate Nazi President Jake Featherston, is chosen for that office specifically because he is an ineffectual cipher. Featherston's first Vice President had tried to assassinate him. Partridge doesn't do much more than hang out with society ladies and tell jokes.
- And on the union side, the Vice President is asked by his new in-laws to describe his job. He explains that the government is a machine, and in it is one all-important piece that keeps all the other parts running. That's the President. As Vice President, he is the backup copy of that piece, whose job is to sit in the closet and collect dust unless something happens to the original.
- In the 1964 novel A Feast of Freedom, Vice President Boysie Taylor visits the island of Omo Levi on a goodwill tour, and is eaten by cannibals.
- In Jeff Greenfield's satirical novel The People's Choice, the President-elect dies just two days after winning the November election. His dopey vice presidential running mate Ted Block, chosen for the ticket for his pretty face and described as "a step or two slow out of the cognitive gate," seems poised to become President. But after Block picks one of his even dopier buddies to be his Vice President, the Electoral College members realize they are not obligated to vote for him and in fact can vote for whoever they want (the Electors are the ones chosen in November, and they officially elect the President in December). Chaos ensues.
- In Christopher Buckley's satirical novel The White House Mess (1986), Vice President Douglas "Bingo" Reigeluth is both far too assertive for the administration's taste and too willing to send the President into areas with heightened risk ("We can't let ourselves be ruled by fear"). Presidential adviser and narrator Herbert Wadlough arranges for the VP to spend pretty much the entire term flying around the world on goodwill missions.
Wadlough: Vice Presidents should be seen and only infrequently heard.
- America (The Book) includes a "Vice Presidential Welcome Letter" that makes the job seem perfect for a Professional Slacker:
"There's no reason why you shouldn't spend the better part of your day in a drunken stupor. Just remember to shave for the State of the Union. Your have to sit behind the President for that one."
- In Community Joe Biden makes an appearance (sort of) while on a Vice Presidential Tour that was going to stop at Greendale. This trope is referenced when he wakes up from a nap and says he had a dream about being a REAL President.
- The HBO series Veep is about an ineffectual, bumbling Vice President, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is ignored by the President and mocked by the media.
- In the American version of House of Cards, Vice President Jim Matthews greatly resents his political irrelevance after he resigned as governor of Pennsylvania to run on the national ticket. In part because of the manipulation by main character Francis Underwood, he ultimately resigns from the position in order to run again for governor of Pennsylvania. He is replaced by Underwood, who uses his influence and connections (and flat-out illegal actions) to wield the maximum amount of power as Vice President up to and including succeeding the President by forcing the latter to resign.
- Both of President Bartlet's veeps in The West Wing. Bartlet and Hoynes personally dislike each other and Bartlet barely involves Hoynes in anything important, which Hoynes resents. Bob Russell is widely known as a bland political hack and was the only VP nominee that could get through a hostile Congress, but he tries to make himself more notable for his inevitable presidential campaign.
- In John Adams, Vice President Adams is chagrined when George Washington excludes him from Cabinet meetings (see Real Life below).
- In Sam and Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die!, if Sam examines the potted plant found in the Oval Office:
Sam: Is that a potted plant, or the Vice President of the United States?
Max: It is hard to tell the difference.
- Enclave Vice President and Dan Quayle spoof Daniel Bird from Fallout2. An experimental vaccine for one of the Enclave's genocidal viruses fried his brain, and he now spends his days spouting utter nonsense (that are edited Quayle gaffes, of course). The President says his spelling and grammar has actually improved.
- In the first episode of Capitol Critters the mice and rats who live in the White House are surprised when two cats are brought in to try to catch them. (They're suprised because "they got dogs, they can't get cats, cats and dogs hate each other.") The one with the collar tag "P" is heroicly built (for a non-anthopomorphic cat) and aggressive; the one with the collar tag "VP" is a pathetic loser who couldn't catch a cold and within seconds of his first appearance trips on his own tie.
- In an episode of The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries, Granny is called in to investigate a haunting at the White House. She apparently recognizes the Vice President, but, when he asks how, she admits that she read his name tag, which just said "The Vice President".
- Mostly true for the first 190 years or so of American history. The precedent was set right off the bat, when George Washington excluded John Adams from Cabinet meetings, much to Adams's displeasure; Adams went on to describe the post of Vice President as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." John Nance Garner, the first of FDR's three vice presidents, famously described the office as "not worth a bucket of warm piss" (the quote was Bowdlerized to "warm spit"). There were moves towards vice presidential relevance after World War II, when Harry Truman—who upon taking office when FDR died, was not even aware that the Manhattan Project was a thing—decided to give his VP something to do when he got one (in 1949), but even then, and even despite some rather high-powered Veeps (Richard Nixon, LBJ, and Hubert Humphrey), the office still remained uninspiring. Starting with Jimmy Carter's VP Walter Mondale, however, Vice Presidents have been more influential, with Dick Cheney being the most notable example of a VP who wielded real power—to the point where some accused him of being The Man Behind the Man.
- On the other hand, the current holder of the office, Joe Biden, is usually seen as a more traditional "useless" VP. When buzz over the NSA scandal was at its peak, it became a popular joke that Biden was Obama's "impeachment insurance", i.e. no one would dare to impeach Obama because that would send Biden into the Oval Office. Twenty years earlier, similar jokes were made about Dan Quayle. The same jokes were also made about the aforementioned Cheney but for different reasons.
- The office was insignificant enough that until the passage of the Twenty Fifth Amendment, there was no provision to replace a VP who left office prematurely or who moved up if the President left office prematurely. The position was simply left vacant until the next election.
- Which became particularly important when Richard Nixon left office...who was unable to be replaced by the previous VP who'd resigned on criminal charges, leading the way for Gerald Ford taking the office - the only president to do so having essentially been elected by Congress. Nobody had even payed attention at the time when he'd been appointed to the Vice Presidency, and not a year later he was being sworn in.
- There is one famous case of Reassignment Backfire. As Governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt was causing trouble for the Republican establishment by going against their (wildly corrupt) political machine. In the hopes of simultaneously getting rid of him and cashing in on his popularity, they made him William McKinley's running mate for the 1900 re-election campaign (McKinley's first-term VP having died in 1899). A few months into his second term, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency. And as if that weren't enough of a shock for the party elite, Roosevelt proceeded to win re-election in 1904.
- Also true of the only Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stephens, whose relationship with President Jefferson Davis turned so bad that Stephens left Richmond in 1862 and spent most of the rest of the war at home in Georgia.
- When Daniel Webster was offered the office of vice president, he famously replied "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin." (Ironically, the offer was made by Zachary Taylor who died in office, meaning that Webster would've become President had he accepted it.)
- Deputy prime ministers too. Tony Blair's deputy PM John Prescott was given the non-job as a sop to the traditionalist wing of the Labor Party and as a token working-class hero. In practice, he was a powerless figure of fun used to deflect criticism away from the real power base. Current PM David Cameron's deputy Nick Clegg is used very much in the Prescott tradition and only got the job to keep the Liberal Democrats in coalition.
- Zig Zagged Trope in Australian politics. Whenever the Coalition (the Liberals and the Nationals) is in power the Deputy Prime Minister is the leader of the National Party, who usually falls under this. However, when Labor is in power the Deputy Prime Minister is also the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, who occasionally takes the leadership at some point (most recently Julia Gillard).
- The Vice-Chancellor of Germany. Always a cabinet minister and usually the leader of the junior coalition partner. So while the office holder is generally known to the public, this is for his other positions and awareness that he is also the deputy head of government is generally low. He also does not succeed to the chancellorship in the case of the Chancellor's resignation or death. As the position has often been held by Germany's foreign minister, it is sometimes said that the main reason for the existence of this position is to make Germany's representative higher ranking (by virtue of being deputy head of government) in comparison to other foreign ministers (who usually only hold ordinary ministerial rank).
- The Swedish deputy Prime Minister uses the same system, and has the same 'usually known but for something else' tendency and when applicable (which is less common than in Germany) 'given to leaders of junior coalition partners'. The foreign minister tendency is less strong, however, possibly because this system has only been in place since 1975 — before 1975, there was no formal 'deputy Prime Minister' position, with the foreign minister having deputy authority as needed (for historic reasons, Sweden's foreign ministers have held a number of privileges otherwise only shared with the Prime Minister in the cabinet, with some having fallen away over the years while others are still in formal force).