Passage to Power: Vice-Presidential Reads

Those hoping to take the long view on the vice-presidential debates have a panoply of worthy books to read. Here are seven nonfiction titles by and about American vice presidents, endorsed by Booklist and linked to their reviews. (Those who prefer fiction might check out Trudy Hopedale.)

american-vice-presidencyThe American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power, by Jules Witcover

For most of our history, the office of vice president has been viewed as a powerless and frustrating position, often derided even by those who held it. In declining nomination for it, Daniel Webster compared it to being buried alive. Using several living former vice presidents as sources, Witcover illustrates how these men consistently expanded their power and influence, to the point where the office was arguably the second most powerful in the executive department. This is a well done and very informative survey of the careers of all the men who filled the office.


bland-ambitionBland Ambition: From Adams to Quayle—The Cranks, Criminals, Tax Cheats and Golfers Who Made It to Vice President, by Steve W. Tally

A mite slapdash, this survey of the occupants of the nation’s next-to-highest elective office is still a fun read—entirely at the expense, of course, of the vice presidents themselves, whom Tally represents as mostly stupid, incompetent mediocrities.




crapshootCrapshoot: Rolling the Dice on the Vice Presidency, by Jules Witcover

This informed, quite readable account of the history and changing parameters of the vice-presidency begins with a fictional, yet all too plausible, scenario in which President George Bush dies and Dan Quayle is propelled into the presidency. Considering the implications of such a catastrophe, Witcover launches into an informative history of the vice-presidency, the origins of the office, the changing nature of that position, and a detailed analysis of all the vice-presidents from Adams to Quayle.


destiny-and-powerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham

President George H. W. Bush’s generous behavior toward family, friends, and strangers is evident throughout Meacham’s highly readable book. In Zelig-like fashion, George H. W. Bush was present at many of the most important events of the last 65-plus years, and the remarkable story of his life and times comes vividly alive in the words of this highly skilled writer.



passage-to-powerThe Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro

Wedged between LBJ’s triumphant Senate career and his presidency, this fourth volume in Caro’s acclaimed Years of Lyndon Johnson series addresses the failed presidential campaign of 1960, the three frustrating years as vice president, and the transition between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Political wonks, of course, will dive into this book with unbridled passion, but its focus on a larger-than-life, flawed but fascinating individual—the kind of character who drives epic fiction—should extend its reach much, much further.


standing-firmStanding Firm: A Vice-presidential Memoir, by Dan Quayle

No politician has been savaged by the press more than Dan Quayle, who just wants reporters to be candid about their political biases and to show some generosity of spirit. The latter he finds especially lacking in liberals in general, except for—which may surprise many—Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, both of whom, Quayle says, are great guys. his thoughtful book is probably the best thing ever written about the modern vice-presidency.


viceVice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency, by Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein

Dubose and Bernstein, journalists who have covered Texas politics with a particular eye on the career of President George W. Bush, examine the power and personality of the vice president. In what Dubose and Bernstein call a secrecy “befitting the Kremlin,” Cheney maneuvered around sunshine laws and defied the media, Congress, and lawsuits to assert the administration’s rights to secrecy in developing national policy on everything from energy to the war in Iraq. Dubose and Bernstein also ponder the implications of Cheney’s actions for the future of the U.S. government.




About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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