"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 Vice President Thomas Marshall
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 casting tie-breaking Senate votes (which 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.
Live Action TV
- 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."
- 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 is a spineless stooge, easily manipulated by protagonist Francis Underwood.
"I didn't get my pen!"
- 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.
- 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 Tweetie 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"). Starting with Walter Mondale, this has been less true, as Vice Presidents have been more influential, with Dick Cheney being the most notable example of a VP who wielded real power.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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 Party 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).