What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

The high-wire act of being vice president

Stereotypically deferential to the point of invisibility, the American vice president’s role is largely determined by the president -- the person, paradoxically, he or she might replace. Kate Andersen Brower, who explores that complicated relationship in history and in the current administration, joins Judy Woodruff for a closer look at her book "First in Line."

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On our Bookshelf tonight, we explore the unique role of vice presidents and their often complicated relationship with the commander in chief.

    I recently sat down with author Kate Andersen Brower to discuss her new book, "First in Line," and asked her why she wanted to write about vice presidents.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    I thought this idea that you are in a primary, you lose, and then you have to work for the person who beat you was just fascinating.

    And then, of course, the whole idea behind "Veep," I always love, the show on HBO, is this idea of constantly trying to get the president's attention. And each of these relationships is so very different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in telling the story of these vice presidents, you're also clearly telling the story of the president and how they deal with them, how they view them, because they're — you know, they're dealing with somebody who could replace them.

    What did you learn about that?

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    Well, it really — the vice president's entire existence is determined by the president, which I think makes it incredibly difficult.

    Mike Pence's chief of staff told me, there's one person he has to keep happy, and that one person is Donald Trump. So, I start with Nixon and Eisenhower in this book, and I go up through the current White House. And you have stories from Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, where Johnson is insisting that Humphrey not travel with any reporter, because he doesn't want Humphrey to get any attention.

    And he's insisting that Humphrey run his speeches by his West Wing, which is something you also do see with Mike Pence and Donald Trump. And the West Wing would go through the speeches that Hubert Humphrey would make and strip out any of the really interesting things.

    And it was about kind of keeping him down. And then, when he ran for office, of course, that really made it impossible for him to win, because he had to support the Vietnam War, even though he was personally against it. And I think just the idea of these competing — you know, this high-wire act.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The choosing of the vice president, such an interesting dance. You have this little known story of how hard Ronald Reagan tried to get former President Gerald Ford to be his vice president.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    It's an incredibly compelling idea, I think, the fact that Ronald Reagan really, seriously considered Gerald Ford.

    And I interviewed Dick Cheney, who worked for Ford at the time, and he said, we couldn't believe how much power Reagan was willing to cede to Ford at the time.

    And so during the convention in 1980, there is a scene that's very similar to what happened when — in 1960, when Robert Kennedy was shuffling between these hotel room floors trying to get LBJ not to sign onto the ticket.

    Something similar happens in the 1980 convention, where Gerald Ford and his aides just were asking for the moon. And they kept pushing and pushing, and finally this famous interview that Walter Cronkite did in which basically Gerald Ford was giving the idea of a co-presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    And that was a bridge too far for Ronald Reagan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do write about the current — the Mike Pence-Donald Trump relationship. Even after Pence was chosen, the "Access Hollywood" tape comes out.

    Mike Pence doesn't — he's still then the nominee. He doesn't take Donald Trump's calls at first. Really interesting high-wire act, as you said.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    It was one of the few times where the power was really in Mike Pence's court. At that moment, he was — if he had pulled out, who would Donald Trump have gone to?

    I mean, on that list, he had Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, who was persona non grata at that time. He even had Michael Flynn on that list for a while, no matter how many times people told him to get him off the list.

    And something I thought that was also fascinating is that his top vetting lawyer said he is — quote — "It terrifies him" that there's no FBI vetting for vice presidents or presidents.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are also stories about Joe Biden. And you have a little bit of reporting there too.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    Yes.

    I mean, when I talked to Biden, I was really struck, first of all, that he talks to Mike Pence, he said, at least once a month, and that when foreign leaders like the king of Jordan, like the Greek prime minister come to the U.S., and when he travels, he meets with them. And he says, if you have an issue, talk to Mike Pence, don't talk to President Trump.

    He says that Mike Pence is someone you can deal with, in the way that Bill Clinton dealt with Newt Gingrich, someone you could work with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why have no vice presidents — you pointed this out — since George H.W. Bush been elected president? Theories?

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    I just think it depends entirely on the president.

    And I do think that the natural inclination of the American people is for change. And it's very hard to keep that message going after two terms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's interesting, because it's almost turning the clock back. You had presidents giving their vice presidents more and more autonomy. But now it's turned around.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    Yes. I mean, right now, it's like Hubert Humphrey and LBJ, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which wasn't a close and warm and cozy relationship.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    It wasn't.

    I mean, I interviewed Mike Pence's brother, his older brother, Greg, who said, when my brother was considering taking the job, he called me up, and he said, you know, I think Donald Trump reminds me of our dad. And Greg said he was surprised by that. And it — and it took him a minute to think about it. And then he said, I can see what you mean.

    Their dad was a Korean War vet. Very tough. I mean, if the six children didn't stand when an adult walked into the room, he would push them, bring them up onto their feet. He sometimes disciplined with a belt.

    I mean, he was a very difficult man to please. And I think that Pence has learned to deal with Donald Trump because he spent his childhood negotiating and trying to work around a difficult personality who kind of sucks all the oxygen out of the room.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many stories here, so many relationships, and just fascinating lessons about the relationship between these two, "First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power."

    Kate Andersen Brower, thank you.

  • Kate Andersen Brower:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest