Thursday, June 18, 2009

Veeps by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger

History books are, by long tradition, deep, weighty tomes, heavy with their own significance and importance and a sure-fire cure for insomnia in their readers. (Sure, that hasn't been always so for at least two generations -- if it ever was generally true -- but it's the cliche of history, and most readers at least half-believe it.) Veeps is a custard pie in the mush of that mindset; it revels in the trivial and the scandalous as it romps through a few selected high points in the careers of the forty-six men who have been Vice Presidents of the United States of America.

The VP is the second-highest office in the land, supposedly -- though the Speaker of the House, Senate Majority leader, some of their lieutenants, several governors, and possibly even the Mayor of New York have grounds for disagreement -- but the Veep only actually has as much power as his President doles out to him. And, in most of these cases, that's exactly none.

Veeps gives each of those men -- and a few of the also-rans of the last four decades, in a short section at the end -- a full-page portrait by Wayne Shellabarger, in a semi-19th century pen-and-ink style that brings out every character foible and unlikely detail of physiognomy, a box of "Fun Facts," and a thousand or two words about each Veep's accomplishments, or lack thereof. (Kelter is the writer here, and Shellabarger the illustrator.)

Kelter writes, in his introduction, that he expected to write a "cheeky hatchet job," but that his conception changed as he did more research into the
decent and intelligent men who languished in the glorified dungeon of the Vice President's office, either wishing they'd kept their original day job, or biding their time until they could achieve legitimacy by the will of the voters (mostly a fool's wish, as history has shown) or as the lucky beneficiaries of someone else's mortal tragedy. Upon closer examination, most of these men engender more sympathy than scorn or ridicule.
Kelter clearly came to like most of the oddballs, overripe politicians, corrupt ward-heelers, and nonentities that have held the office -- "a buffoon's gallery of rogues, incompetents, empty suits, abysmal spellers, degenerate golfers, and corrupt Marylanders" -- and Veeps is immeasurably better for his change of heart. It's not hard to mock and scorn, but it's much more difficult to find the humor in someone you pity. Kelter always does, though -- each of these men has something humorous about him, and some of them have little else.

Also on the positive side, this is probably the only book to feature William Almon Wheeler -- veep to Rutherford B. Hayes and possessor of the finest surname in Christendom -- as its cover model in at least a century. On the negative side, Veeps could have benefited from a more careful eye during copyediting; it's understandable, since Top Shelf is otherwise exclusively a publisher of comics, but there are a number of obvious and easily correctable errors in this book.

But that's only a small blemish on a otherwise impeccable volume. Veeps doesn't set its sights very high: it aims to be a collection of humorous anecdotes about the VPs of the USA, mildly disparaging the entire institution, and completely succeeds. There may well be a more scholarly and better-researched books on the veeps in my lifetime -- though even that would not be easy; Kelter has worked hard to unearth his frivolities -- but there will not be a funnier nor a cheerier one. Veeps becomes an unlikely paean to America, the land where even these men can succeed, where failure is rarely final and even obscurity has a cockeyed nobility. All hail to the Veeps!

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