Monday, June 15, 2009

Join the Race for Second Place

To the inquisitive masses dying to learn more about the Vice Presidency:


Why, in the name of all that is moderately interesting would you pick the Vice Presidency, of all the available offices in the United States government to find an interest in? Matt, my co-author, and I, have wondered that about ourselves from the very beginning.

Vice-Precedence began in 2005 as a documentary on the second-highest office in the land. Still in production, we’ve interviewed a number of high profile historians, including Steve Tally, author of the brilliant “Bland Ambition,” and Gore Vidal, who called us “Better interviewers than Ken Burns” in our two-hour-long interview at his home in the Hollywood Hills.

In 2007, the decision was made to turn Vice-Precedence into the world’s foremost compendium on the nation’s also-rans and sort-of-served…s. Profiling the 33 men who never ascended to the presidency by accident or seniority, and covering those periods of history when the remaining men were tested with true power, we believe we’ve easily found a new turn on a fascinating and poorly covered segment of American history. Since then, we’ve been compiling notes and media from a variety of sources, using the internet in many cases as a great starting point for our history, but checking and re-checking our facts using existing books (of which there are decidedly few), newspapers and original resources (what some would call “real” or “actual” research).

Despite our passion for an office which, according to Steve Tally, has been empty for a total 35-plus years throughout its 220 years, it has been a rough - if easily very satisfying - road. It’s also been rather astounding. In our search for other Vice President experts, we have made inquiries to a number of major American universities, most notably UCLA. When told that any political office (regardless of the way in which it is covered – our notable diversion from the flock being our chronological study of the events and people surrounding a topic) is more the realm of the political scientist, Matt and I were slightly confused, given the historical bent of our studies. Nonetheless, a similar survey of political scientists failed to yield a substantial response to our inquiries.

Were we really alone? Hardly. There have been a handful of books written on the office. Few of them have been more than a simple compilation of facts, and the remainder of them have ranged from observationally witty, to mildly sarcastic, to downright bitter. Our bent has always been comedic, for which we make no apologies. Humor has been scientifically proven to aide the average person’s information intake, and the office – nay, history – requires this sort of angle every once in awhile.

This isn’t to say that we’re writing fiction. We’ve had to, on too many occasions, explain that humor doesn’t necessarily equate with false, just as drama doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equate with truth, as much as we’d all like to believe The Godfather to be a Master's thesis on Italian-Americans in the 1940s. Humor, in this case, is like a lubricant for knowledge. It is our goal, then, to penetrate your grey matter with fascinating tidbits about the office.

That said, we should also let you know that both Matt and I respect the office, its history, and history in general in many ways. We just aren’t reverent to it. This, we believe, is the mistake that most historians, good or bad, regardless of their particular bias, make, which disallows the general public or their niche audience any perspective on the events that are being relayed to them. What we don’t respect, in this case, is the way history is written. History needn’t be stuffy or pretentious, or feel “important” or make your heart swell. Sure, it’s great when you read that stuff, but what is so often left out, especially in American history, is that this country – even if you believe it was founded by “brave patriots” or “white slave-owners” – was founded by people. Men and women. Yes, many of them owned slaves, and yes, many of them – occasionally, never consistently – exuded bravery, even patriotism. But to believe the image of history that gets painted with too much reverence is a mistake. It might seem less exciting – even boring – to eliminate that bias towards exaggerating the importance of historical events or people, but we plan to make those very events and people exciting and interesting again, with our own bias – against the good majority of historians and what they want you to think is important.

History is, unfortunately, what other people tell you it is. The closest you can get to an event for which you can’t, yourself, get an eye-witness interview, is a newspaper or a photograph. And the closest you can get to many of those most important volumes is, nowadays, electronically. What shouldn’t be lost, despite the redundant Xeroxing of historical events (even as they unfold), is the importance of understanding what one is reading and the source from which one’s information comes. A good example of how this can go wrong happened to my sister a few years ago. A very brilliant young woman, she was easily one of the brightest in her class in high school. As a brief introduction to university life, her class was given a tour of SUNY Oneonta, where a sweet young student showed them around the library. At one point she stopped at a glass case, perhaps proud of the historical collection they had at SUCO, as the college was truncated. The young tour guide then turned to the group and pointed out a newspaper from the birth of our country. My sister looked closer at the paper, noticing a picture of a woman, who looked like she was marching in a parade. Pointing out that this was not a period newspaper, she was kindly corrected by the tour guide. My sister, not wanting to be picky and point out that photos weren’t invented until 60 years into our country’s history, took the easy route, saying “That’s my mother.” My mother had, indeed, marched in a bicentennial parade just four years before I was born, and had had her photo taken for a local paper. I don’t recall how the girl recovered from this, but I do know something – thank God my sister was observant, or who knows how quickly or surreptitiously that tiny bit of misinformation and misperception would have been spread.

So, just as it takes a reliable source to make a good book, it equally takes a discerning reader who takes the author to task – not on opinions (of which there should be a well-chosen few) – but on cold, hard facts and how the author dissects and investigates. Though my sister's story is small in scale, it is a good example of the way in which a seed of disinformation is formed. In an age of instantly available information, equal parts trustworthy and specious, such a seed can germinate into an Elm of Lies quicker than ever before. We invite you to take us to task as you sit back, relax, and prepare to be blown away by facts that will make your brain hurt and, hopefully, make you realize just how much of your vote and tax money is going towards an office with only one constitutionally-defined duty.

This blog will cover both the progress of the film and book and our daily ruminations on its office-holders. For the time being, the loose format of the blog will have Matt concentrating on the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney, while I will be referring to a growing list (already 3,000 strong) of articles on Joe Biden. Our lack of historical perspective on either of these men notwithstanding, you’ll be able to get a play-by-play of an office that is still taken for granted too often.

Good night, and good historying.

Jason C. Klamm, B.A.

About the Author:
Jason C. Klamm holds a B.A. from Chicago’s prestigious Columbia COLLEGE, not to be confused with the upstart Columbia University, who relies on a name, rather than results, for its reputation. He spends his spare time writing about the Vice Presidency and producing documentaries.

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