Sunday, March 23, 2014

High Priest as Moses' VP - the destiny of Aarons?

I remember, as a little boy, my excitement on stumbling upon a biography of Aaron Burr.  The only other famous namesake I had was Moses' brother. There was Hank Aaron, but he was really Hank. Now, almost forty years later the list of famous people named Aaron remains short.  I have to add Aaron Copeland and a whole bunch of actors. Not a great bench.

Of course Aaron Burr was a world-class creep who killed the former Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton) in a duel and flirted with treason, spearheading a plan to carve out a new nation in the Louisiana Purchase.

The ranks of renowned Aarons is thin enough, that my aspirations to join are not completely unrealistic (or maybe it is a message that peope named Aaron are simply not fated to greatness.)

This weekend, on Shabbat, the portion of the Torah read was Shemini, in which two of Aaron's sons are burned to a crisp for offering alien fire at the altar.  (Occasionally religious studies inform my academic work see here and here.) As a friend delivered a lesson about the interaction between Aaron and his brother Moses, I was struck.  I am named Aaron. The Aaron the High Priest played second-fiddle to Moses.  He spoke for Moses and handled the ceremonial duties. But he didn't have the gumption or vision to lead the people out of Egypt.  When the Israelites started constructing the Golden Calf, Aaron couldn't stop them - he could only try to influence their actions on the margin and make it less offensive to Hashem.  Moses was one who hurled the thunderbolts.

Aaron was like Moses' vice president.  And then, the other famous Aaron of history was in fact a vice president (a rotten one, but still...)

Was I somehow destined to study Vice Presidents - the close, but not-quite great?

It is somehow comforting to think so.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Funny Data-Point: The VP as comic-in-chief

I suppose I should be writing about Ukraine or Syria - big things are happening in the world. But my mind is elsewhere. I found an intriguing new datapoint for my dissertation. Influential vice presidents are funny, and can make the president laugh.

Mondale is funny, it did not translate into a broader appeal, but people who worked with him always remarked on his quick and ready wit, which he happily turned on himself. When asked how he thought one of his speeches went he answered, "I don't know, I fell asleep half-way through."  After losing the 1984 Presidential election he said, "All my life I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst way. And that's just what I did."

He is also a big Monty Python fan.

George H.W. Bush, according to people I interviewed, loved a good joke. They used to circulate funny memos around the office (at their lunches, Reagan and Bush told each other jokes.) As President, when he learned that Saddam Hussein intended to try him in a "people's court" he sent a memo to White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray instructing him to go to Baghdad an defend him. At the height of a crisis he had time for a little fun with his advisors.

Gore, by many accounts was really, really funny.  My interviews have mentioned it, as did several White House memoirs.  George Stephanopoulos reports that Gore could always make the President laugh, delivering daily briefings on the John Wayne-Lorena Bobbit affair, and poking fun at Clinton when he was frustrated prepping for press conferences.

I don't know about Quayle, but there is substantial evidence that Cheney had a good sense of humor.  In his memoirs, Bush mentioned Cheney's dry wit. A few weeks before leaving office, there was a conference of White House chiefs of staff to meet the incoming chief of staff - Rahm Emmanuel. Cheney had been Ford's chief of staff. Each one offered their advice to Emmanuel. Cheney suggested, "Whatever you do, make sure you've got the vice president under control."

The vice president has long been the target of humor, but this is different.  I don't have many datapoints here (but my whole research project is pretty small-n). But, the ability to make the President laugh - particularly at himself - is a real asset. Both in building the needed chemistry between the POTUS and the Veep, but also in managing the inevitable and massive stresses of the top office.

Too bad Spiro Agnew couldn't make Nixon laugh - they both could have used it. And ultra-serious Henry A. Wallace almost certainly would have been well-served by a good sense of humor in dealing with the breezy, witty Roosevelt.