We never set out to create a franchise celebrating an occupation that no one has ever celebrated. There were many more fruitful areas we could have explored had that been the case. Drywalling, for example, or soft drink sales.
Perhaps not even those. Both have their own trade publications. The same can’t be said for the American Vice Presidency. Yet, that’s the torch we chose to carry.
It’s especially astonishing how accidentally we came upon it. It was an honor that needed to be accorded, though. Its very proximity to absolute power aside, no station in American politics is so constantly distrusted or maligned, when it’s not outright ignored. The Senate sergeant at arms casts a sexier shadow than the Vice President of the United States.
We also didn’t expect it to become so much of our life’s work; to occupy a period of time in our lives that far exceeded the Vice Presidential tenures of any of the men we’ve covered.
Hagiography of any kind is no easy pursuit, and can be an onerous burden to bear as much as a labor of love. It can become so consuming that one day you bear down with a neophyte’s wide-eyed passion, and the next you look up and a decade or more of your life has elapsed, and you are left to wonder how it all went by so quickly. Much like a tenured career, or raising children, or incarceration.
When that realization comes, when you realize the commitment you’ve made, is when it’s important to take stock, to reflect on the journey and the genesis—for perspective, and most certainly for posterity. Because you aren’t getting any younger, and with every passing year when it gets harder and harder to remember where you parked your car or the names of your neighbors and your children’s friends, the details of these pursuits you’ve devoted so much of your life to will erode and fizzle one after another.
Of course, it won’t matter to you in the end, but at least those tending to you as you wind down the clock watching Nash Bridges reruns in the day room will have some basis to appreciate the measure of your existence, and realize that at one time, long ago, you were not only able to dress yourself and consume food on your own, but lived a vital and dedicated life, truly committed to…well, something. It doesn’t really matter, but you were very good at what you did apparently. They’ll know that much, and it might temper their annoyance at having to assist with your basic human functions day after day.
Our Vice Presidential enterprise came about honestly, innocently, and at the flash of a moment’s inspiration in the wee small hours of a foggy weekend morning, long, long ago.
In the early winter of 1999-2000, I was living in an apartment in an old home in the Corbett neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It had been two years since an erstwhile live-in girlfriend had departed and most vestiges of her previous residence had long since been excised from my reclaimed home. All except two—the cat she insisted we get three months before her departure who wound up hating her with an intensity it would normally reserve for mice, and the checkerboard tile work on the bathroom floor that she installed six months before she moved out.
That was no small feat. As a general rule, landlords tend to frown on home “improvement” projects initiated by their renters. More often than not, what’s sold as a classy, surefire value-add turns into a devaluing eyesore and a testament to a former tenant’s abominable taste.
My ex got her wish, though, and we had a handsome checkerboard of 12” x 12” white and Pakistan green tiles on our bathroom floor.
And that was the last attention I paid to it for nearly three years, from execution through her departure through day after day of peripheral awareness.
Until late 1999. After a long Friday evening celebrating little more than the end of the workweek, I found myself back home in my bathroom sometime shortly before sunrise, using my right arm to steel my wobbly self against the sink as my left used my toothbrush to scour away the film of a night’s indulgences from my teeth.
Looking down, staring at my bathroom floor as I scrubbed my molars clean, it occurred to me: That floor is really stark. What good are white tiles? They only magnify the dirt. No wonder I’m cleaning the floor so goddamn much. Why the hell did I ever let her think this was a good idea? Should I call her and give her a piece of my mind? No, that’s probably unnecessarily aggressive, years later. Jesus, this just looks so Spartan. Like empty picture frames. There should be something there….pictures. No, portraits. Of men of history. Of maligned men of history. Men who don’t get portraits of themselves. Men so far from power in the popular estimation, usually deservedly so, but so close in reality: Our American Vice Presidents. Our Chief Executive understudies.
Normally, my notoriously short attention span would have quickly detoured from such an epiphany to questions no more consequential than what was the Latin word for “toilet paper” and did the hand soap revolution drive any bar soap makers out of business?
For some reason, though, my Vice Presidential portraiture idea was not going to be easily forgotten. In fact, it seemed essential—not just because I had prime real estate in my apartment begging to be filled with my own gaudy decorative flourishes, but because I had experienced one of those moments in life where I found a void that I couldn’t believe no one had filled.
Nearly four dozen men had served as U.S. Vice President, and 14 of them had actually assumed the Presidency. Until those 14 became President, who knew anything about them? And of the other 30+ who hadn’t, who even cared?
So why did I care suddenly?
Three things had passed over my transom the last several weeks that weren’t swept away by the torrent of new media coming in hourly.
First, that Spiro Agnew, as Vice President of the United States, had accepted cash bribes from building contractors in his office.
Second, that the king of the modern malaprop, Vice President George H.W. Bush, had tapped as Vice President possibly the only man in the western world more capable of enthusiastically stepping onto the verbal landmines of his own creation.
Third, that Aaron Burr had murdered a man and was allowed to hide out in his Vice Presidential office to escape extradition to two states.
It struck me that there was a disconnect here. When anyone referred to these men at all, it was often derisively. Yet these were important men. They didn’t get airports named after them, nor streets, nor aircraft carriers, but they were still welcomed attendees in the deepest offices of American influence. No one seemed to take seriously their dangerous proximity to power.
Make no mistake, they were all capable men to some degree; they had to have been so to have made it as far in their lives.
A birthday clown is similarly capable and also has to be to have gotten as far—he has a business to run with invoices to issue and payments to receive and taxes to pay, not to mention the ability to entertain and the patience to endure rooms of restless, ruthless eight-year-olds.
An easy object of ridicule, there is a proven capacity for achievement in the birthday clown that places him above the average American layabout.
But would you ever entrust him with our country’s nuclear launch codes?
Our Vice Presidents seemed just as ill suited for such a grave responsibility. Could a man who murdered a former U.S. Treasury Secretary in the scrub oaks outside Weehawken, New Jersey, be entrusted to assemble and manage a Cabinet? Could a man who said of the U.S. drug problem, “After I’m President, I’ll be coming out with my own drug problem!” be a credible role model in his government’s current war against illegal drugs? Could his eventual Vice President–nicknamed “Wet Head” as a Congressman for his habit of arriving late to chamber after extended sessions in the House gym—capably manage one of the three branches of government and inspire a second branch to legislate his vision for the country, and did he even have a vision for his country? Could a man who became so synonymous with novelty wristwatches that it was said that Mickey Mouse wore one of him ever expect to be taken seriously as the leader of the free world?
Yet, all four of these men were first invited and then allowed to remain in power, and, more ominously, near an even greater power—power that by the short-circuit of a single mortal fuse could become theirs at any second.
They were important if only because we as a country had allowed them to be so close to the single most important man in the nation. For that reason alone, their lack of popular recognition was a conspicuous civic oversight that it was our responsibility to correct.
I would assume that responsibility, and it would start on my bathroom floor, and three other grown men would eventually share that responsibility with me.
As weighty a moment as that was—instead of continuing to bed as I should have done, I spent a considerable number of minutes leaning against the bathroom wall and envisioning what my tribute would look like—I expected little to come of it beyond the initial execution of my inspiration. At best, I could hope to educate a dozen or so visitors to my home each year. In fact, truthfully, I knew deep down that once this pre-twilight moment had passed, I did not have full confidence in my will to see it through. (How many late Friday imperatives to buy a dozen roses for a cordial waitress or to reach out to all of the cousins I hadn’t seen since I was ten were supplanted the next morning by my immediate need for coffee, a high-protein breakfast, and four more hours of sleep, and never revisited again?)
When I awoke later that morning, though, and found the scrawled note on my kitchen table, “VP ports bRm floor contact ppr library loc qte libr congrs bkstr portrrture templt,” not only did I not shake my head in embarrassment and destroy my note, but I knew the fried eggs and eight sausages could wait.
I had work to do. For America.
This was my first genuine art installation, but I had clear focus on how to get it accomplished, once I decoded my note from earlier in the morning:
GOAL: Vice Presidential Portraits on White Tiles on Bathroom Floor.
DESIGN ELEMENTS: Frame template (ornate/classic), portrait, name/details of service (President served, state or origin, dates served), notable quote.
APPLICATION: Kodak® Photo Paper, Glossy (44 lb+), 8.5” x 11”. Avery Self-adhesive Laminating Sheets, 9” x 12”.
INFORMATIONAL COLLATERAL: Multnomah County Public Library, Powells Books, Library of Congress.
Late December can be quite vile in Portland, and none more than December 1999. It was a nasty slog to make it downtown on a Saturday amidst the after-Christmas shoppers, and it only got more complicated once I made it into the main branch of the Multnomah County Public Library.
The dedicated Vice Presidential stacks were not easy to find. The scaffolding set up to restore this beautiful building to its original grandeur was only part of the challenge, as there were no dedicated Vice Presidential stacks, as I discovered.
I was immediately frustrated and appalled that no such primrose path to my essential research materials existed until I realized that this was the very reason that I was embarking on this quest.
I was also worried that on the basis of my handful of examples that I might be underestimating the significance of this office that has endured since its conception during our Constitutional Convention more than 200 years ago.
Two days later, after hours combing the library stacks and supplemental research collected from downtown Portland’s plethora of independent booksellers, this was no longer a concern.
Among my many revelations that came out of that dark and stormy weekend: Our nation’s second-highest elected office was so disregarded that it sat vacant for 37 of its first 176 years in existence. That’s not only astonishing, but it calls the very necessity of the office into question, and vividly magnifies its inherent insignificance.
The floor installation had been successfully in place for twelve months when Wayne paid his first visit to Portland in January 2001. Since our first evening hanging out in my quad at the University of Oregon in 1987 had ended with him vomiting into my toilet, Wayne had spent a good deal of time in my bathrooms in subsequent years, and felt that this aesthetic upgrade to my current water closet was a significant improvement that would enhance the experience of his current and future visits, even if vomitous events were mostly behind us.
Always the artist, Wayne snapped pictures of the floor for his own future reference or, at the very least, an amusing visual capture of one of our visits.
In 2002, the building I lived in was purchased by a Portland couple who blended their surnames and named their children with the last names of 19th century British authors. To pay for the restoration of the crumbling foundation, my rent–which had commenced in 1992 at $425 per month and was currently at $475–was escalated immediately to $700, on a fast track to $850.
As they set about an aggressive renovation of the building, my relationship with my future wife was escalating to co-habitation. We’d need to do so elsewhere, in a larger domicile where we could play house and I could remove myself from the post-collegiate single apartment life that I had been spending more than a decade of the nearly fifteen years since I’d left full-time college.
I left behind the apartment and the Floor Of Vice Presidents for a large rental house in the Hollywood neighborhood of Northeast Portland. I’d done my part, and touted the legacy of the American Vice Presidency to at least twelve or thirteen different people who had visited my erstwhile bathroom in the last 36 months. Not obituary material, but I’d done my best.
The laminate that I’d applied to the VP portraits on the floor had done its best as well, and there was no removing it. It would go to the dumpster along with the rest of the remodeling detritus after I left, when the new owners accelerated their gentrification and jacked the rent to $1,100 a month for the next tenants.*)
Except for the occasional “go fuck yourself” from our then Vice President to an elected member of the United States Senate, I had very little cause to think of either the office or my long-ago art installation conceived to afford them the recognition that had so long eluded them.
Very little at all, until March 2005.
(*More than eleven years later, in spring 2014, after I’d vacated the infamous apartment, and changed my life and residences and jobs several times in the intervening years, I was having a casual conversation with a young woman I had recently hired. It came up in the course of casual conversation that she and her boyfriend had recently moved into an apartment that sounded suspiciously like my Corbett-Lair Hill digs—the neighborhood, the surrounding landmarks, the physical address, the apartment number…Yes, she and her boyfriend are living in my old apartment—not just my old building, but the actual apartment–where Veeps was born under improbable and murky circumstances one dark morning nearly fifteen years ago, when she was probably nine, and waking up to watch cartoons, somewhere on the other side of the country. No, I didn’t ask her what she was paying for the place now.)
During a visit to San Francisco celebrating my wife’s birthday and our first wedding anniversary, we met Wayne for dinner near his apartment in the Sunset neighborhood. He mentioned that he’d shown the pictures of my Vice Presidential Floor to Brett Warnock, the co-owner of Top Shelf, the publishing house that had published Wayne’s 1996 book of concert poster art, I’m Totally Helpless.
Wayne had proposed to Brett what a brilliant set of playing cards our Vice Presidents would make. I was excited—we could base them on the illustrations I’d already done, and between the disrepute of the office and the mental acuity of its occupants was held in and that there had only been 45 Vice Presidents, we could cheekily tout, “Short of a full deck!”
Brett didn’t get where he was in the publishing world playing small ball, though. “I was thinking more along lines of a book,” he said.
Wait. What? A book. We could do a book. I didn’t see that one coming, but sure, why not?
Grandiose commercial ambition is not an accusation we’ve faced often in our creative lives, but we could buy into Brett’s enthusiasm. Wayne had a great position in video retail—though economically neutralized, unfortunately, by having to ply his trade and hang his hat in one of the least cost-effective metropolitan areas in the country. I was coming to the end of my heretofore successful Internet business, where the only thing continuing to grow was my tax obligation.
We entertained mass market delusions for this book for only the briefest time, but if it meant a little extra change in our pockets at a time when we had little to speak of, that was a bonus. Even if we didn’t, there was the incalculable tombstone value–an ISBN and maybe a Library Of Congress listing, and filling a heretofore empty niche: America’s pre-eminent Vice Presidential historians.
Brett and his Top Shelf partner, Chris, agreed in January 2007 to green light the book—the imprint’s first prose title, we were proud to learn. Wayne and I spent the next year drawing and writing our nascent masterwork.
It was a welcome and healthy distraction from the escalating personal issues that were quickly devouring both of our lives—my marriage joining my business in a tighter and faster circle around the drain, and Wayne’s onetime gladiatorial dominance of his sdrinking resulting in increasing split decisions and TKOs in booze’s favor.
We were racing one another to the bottom as we went into the second half of 2007.
I won. By that summer, I was deeply in debt, my marriage was over, and I had departed our home and was living in an area of Vancouver, Washington, popular for recent graduates of the Washington State penal system needing affordable places to rebuild their lives but maintain close proximity to their parole officers and affordable cigarettes.
Professionally, my business was in smoking ruins and disappearing so quickly in my rearview mirror that it would soon feel like it happened in someone else’s life. I was suddenly part of the temporary workforce, bouncing from one brief assignment to another—at my lowest ebb, reeling from the twin wreckage of my business and personal lives, I was taking time on the clock at one job to search the Internet for handguns, with the thought of grabbing an early ride into the hereafter. (It was despondent “I’ll show her” self-pitying bluster, of course—you can gauge how serious I was by the fact that I was making very detailed price comparisons on the firearm I was going to select to end my life with.)
Things had stabilized a bit by the end of the year—the end of my marriage was less persistently agonizing, I felt good enough not to spend Christmas Eve drinking alone, and I had a steady if stultifying three-month assignment for $11.00 an hour in the purchasing department of a large day care center corporation.
Yet, it had been an ugly, dispiriting reversal of fortune in a very short period of time, and there still didn’t seem a lot to recommend my presence and participation in the coming 2008. The best plan I had was finishing what we were now calling Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance and leaving that behind as my Confederacy of Dunces and evidence that I had actually existed on this earth at one point. (Come to think of it, that was essentially the service I was performing for our 45 Vice Presidents in writing Veeps.)
It was just after midnight on Tuesday, December 18, of that year that the Wayne call came in. (Not that he was in rehab—that call would come a few months later.) He and Brett had talked. An opportunity had emerged from nowhere and presented itself. It was fantastic and bordering on the outlandish–especially to my ears, as I was currently making my living selling high chairs to shrill day care center managers. A leap like the one they were proposing didn’t seem plausible, and not even worth relegating to my daydreams.
On the other hand, I was currently making my living selling high chairs to shrill day care center managers. I was open to any possibility to change my luck, regardless of how outlandish.
Brett had a friend from college who had gone on to be a very successful producer of commercial videos. He’d done television advertisements and corporate productions for a number of prominent and even Fortune 500 companies. What his resume lacked, though, was something personal; something that would give him a little creative juice and that he could put his stamp on. He wanted to make a feature-length motion picture.
He was in periodic contact with Brett and knew that Top Shelf had become quite successful. Did Brett have any works in the pipeline that might be suited to a silver screen treatment?
Top Shelf had a number of titles prepared to hit the market in 2008, and after weighing the merits of each as a big screen production, Brett suggested that there might be some potential for Veeps.
Sure. That seemed a perfectly logical fit to me as well: 45 white males of some degree of privilege, once highly regarded in their chosen fields of expertise, and then jammed into marginal positions in service to their country, where two of three would play out miserable professional existences and vanish with barely a mention in America’s history books, completing their lives in miserable, unfulfilled near-anonymity. I would absolutely pay $12.00 to see this story at a movie theater.
On the other hand, Brett was investing his company’s resources in hopes that book buyers would put down $19.95 for those same stories, and I was joining Wayne in devoting my time and energies into writing them, so I would have done well to be a bit less cynical at this point. (Also, see my earlier mention of selling high chairs to shrill day care center managers.)
Once Wayne and I started spit-balling on this late night call, it was surprising how quickly the story took shape (even if we had to bend it nine ways from Sunday to make a compelling narrative.)
We were at step 1 of a very long journey, however, and as productive as our early brainstorming had been, that was all it was, and Brett’s as-yet-unrevealed filmmaker acquaintance had neither signed off on nor even hear our full pitch yet. At this juncture, it seemed almost masochistic to entertain this ridiculous dream in any meaningful way.
I was at my desk at the day care company the Friday after Christmas when I checked my voicemail. There was an urgent, somewhat grave message from Brett—who to this point in our publisher-author relationship had never called me—that I needed to call him right away. This couldn’t possibly be good news.
And I couldn’t call him right away. They keep a tight leash on their people in the day care industry—at the purchasing department in this day care concern, at least—and it would be another 77 minutes before I was entitled to my next 10 minute break.
I spent that 77 minutes convincing myself beyond a shadow of a doubt that this phone call would represent the official termination of Veeps. I had no idea why, but you hear these turnaround stories every day in every business, and in fact, it would have appropriately bookended what had already been the most abysmal annum of my 42-year existence. This tiny thread of hope that I was holding onto was going to go away, just because.
My break came and I made my way into the stairwell to call Brett, bracing for the bad news and just hoping to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Brett eschewed the pleasantries and got right to the point. “Do you know Mike Lay?”
Yes, I do. I went to high school with him in Hood River. We were acquaintances, friendly enough but not close, with some mutual friends, and I hadn’t seen him in probably seventeen years.
And as my publisher—or, I assumed, my soon-to-be-former publisher—you are asking about a high school friend I haven’t seen since the first Bush Administration why?
“He’s the filmmaker, the one who wants to make a movie, the one I told about Veeps. We met for lunch today and I mentioned your name, and Wayne’s.”
This was all making sense now, as I stepped back and considered for the first time the convoluted tapestry that was Wayne’s and my history, and the variation that he shared with Brett, and Mike’s role in this now that he’d returned from our distant past and was in the picture. It shakes out as follows:
- Wayne, Mike, and I went to the Hood River Valley High School, in separating graduating classes.
- I knew Mike in high school, but Wayne didn’t arrive until the year after I graduated.
- Mike knew Wayne casually; they were in a few clubs together.
- Brett went to high school in Portland.
- All four of us went to the University of Oregon.
- Brett and Mike lived in the same dormitory, where they met.
- I saw Mike occasionally at U of O, but never met Brett.
- I met Wayne my fourth year at U of O when he arrived and sought me out on the advice of my English teacher brother-in-law, who believed that we would be birds of a feather with our similarly morbid senses of humor.
- Wayne happened to live in the same dormitory complex where Mike and Brett lived, albeit after they had gone.
- Many years after college, Brett—an acquaintance of Wayne—would publish on his new imprint, Top Shelf Publications, Wayne’s book of concert poster art, I’m Totally Helpless!Mike went on to a successful career as a commercial and corporate video producer, maintaining a casual friendship with Brett, but never crossing paths with Wayne and I.
- Brett agreed to publish a book on the Vice Presidents if Wayne and I would illustrate and write it respectively.
Mike wanted to make a narrative film to add to his professional bona fides, and thought to query his publisher friend, Brett, who recommended the upcoming Veeps, only because it was an upcoming Top Shelf title and was his only title that could potentially fit the criteria Mike was seeking as his first narrative production, and having no idea that Wayne and I had any idea who Mike was, and vice versa.
I always find it helpful to spell this story out in bullet points, because it’s impossible to follow if you haven’t been actively studying for the SAT for months, and because this is the type of outlandish and highly improbable coincidence usually associated with the unexplained disappearance of seagoing vessels in different oceans across multiple centuries.
And that’s where we all were as 2007 drew to a close, and how our enterprise fully came together. You can be the most rancid curmudgeon in the world–the type of person who makes masturbation gestures at cancer recovery stories, drinks alone on Christmas, believes that small children are forever in collusion in a confidence game on the rest of us, and that the lights go forever black when we die—but the confluence of circumstances about has to prompt at least a nanosecond’s thought that there might have been some preordination at work here.
For our part, even as sour and cynical as most of us were in our advancing years, we didn’t question it. This was the road we were shown and we needed to take it. We met, formed our production company, wrote an outstanding movie treatment that eventually resembled a coherent story. We opted not to write a script, and improvise from an outline. We were able to mine liberally from the more desultory aspects of our current lives—Wayne’s rehab; my divorce, and dystopian temp job at the large unnamed national day care center chain—as well the impending triumphal ones. (Mostly the desultory, though.)
We pooled our money for our barely five-figure production budget, and committed to the creation of a feature-length film based on the soon-to-be-released Top Shelf title, Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance, which would spend much of pre-production being slapped together by Wayne and me, and production somewhere between the last thumb drive we had given Top Shelf and an as-yet-unassigned shipping container somewhere in the stevedoring dregs of mainland China. We recruited friends and acquaintances to join in the filming, along with legions of Mike’s local film industry connections. Mike called in several hundred favors and put himself on the hook for at least a few hundred more, borrowing time, equipment, locations, and services. We filmed the movie locally and in Denver and Minneapolis at the 2008 Democratic and GOP nominating conventions. The book was released to very positive reviews and media attention, from CNN to The AV Club to Howard Zinn—a constellation of distinguished American artists and media personalities who, it turned out, knew as little about the Vice Presidency as we once did.
All the while, all of these seven years, the movie has continued to come together…and diverge…and come together again…slowly. Day jobs have changed, relationships have changed, children have grown up, only one of us survived the Veeps divorce curse, children have been conceived and grown up.
No one in the Veeps family died during the making of Veeps, but we’re all unnervingly much closer to AARP membership than we were when we began. The once foreboding medical exams that were the exclusive province of our parents and their peers when we began have been part of our regular physicals for several years now.
HBO released the popular Vice Presidential comedy, Veep, in 2012, which has gone on to win several Emmys. We’ve long since passed the point where we lament that it stole the thunder of our soon-to-be-released motion picture, because it is now rounding out its third season, and our soon-to-be-released motion picture is still soon-to-be-released. (As a sign of our maturity, we have graciously not taken them to task for lifting the logo typeface from our 2008 “Veeps Blog”).
On the eve of the summer of 2014, and the first public screenings of our film, we’re comfortable that we can be very proud of what we’ve accomplished these last many, many years, even if we didn’t plan on it taking many, many years to accomplish. By dint of persistence and dedication, we’ve created our first feature-length motion picture, and the first and only motion picture about the American Vice Presidency.
For Wayne and I, this movie does more than that, though. By dint of persistence and dedication, we have filled the niche that we set out to fill by writing the book: becoming America’s pre-eminent Vice Presidential historians.
In fairness, maybe that wasn’t on our mind when we set out on this journey. It’s been too many years to know what we were really thinking at the time—this was so long ago that many people were still using Blackberries, and liked Katherine Heigl.
To be perfectly honest, it was probably as much or more by attrition and default than persistence and dedication—no one was applying for the job, and the few with any cachet in the field died a long time ago. An opportunity landed unexpectedly at our feet, and we picked it up, and made it ours.
There’s no shame in that. Larger mantles have been assumed in American political history by accidents far more random and beginnings much more happenstantial.
It only seems appropriate that we would fall arse-backwards into an unintended career that would, at least temporarily, define us for good or ill; consume a significant period of our vital years, and leave us with most of our anonymity still intact.
A truly American story, really. It would make a great movie, wouldn’t it?