One other new chapter of that story is about to unfold on the most important potential public stage. When former vice chairman Joe Biden is inaugurated as president in January, it’s going to shine a renewed mild on that age-old phenomenon, drawn from the theater, of the onetime understudy-turned-star. Like every former understudy, Biden will probably be decided to place his personal stamp on the function.
For the remainder of us, his rise from No. 2 to No. 1 (albeit after a four-year interim) embodies a fable that comes true simply usually sufficient — in politics, leisure, sports activities, and within the lives and careers we see unfolding round us — to keep up our perception in it.
Maybe we want to consider in it as a result of it corresponds with how we see ourselves and our personal potential, with our personal delayed-but-not-to-be denied future. Maybe the primary half of the phrase is what speaks to us: Understudy as in underdog, underestimated, underrated. Sure, we inform ourselves, we may be on the undercard now, however absolutely we’re headed for the marquee.
That hoped-for trajectory is embedded within the title of a CNN documentary scheduled to premiere Dec. 5: “President in Waiting.” Specializing in the relationships between presidents and their vice presidents, it’s going to characteristic interviews with all six residing vice presidents — Biden, Mike Pence, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and Walter Mondale — in addition to former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Invoice Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.
Excess of in theater or sports activities or every other enviornment, the dance of energy and ambition between presidents and vice presidents — i.e., stars and understudies — is a difficult minuet. It may well make for an intriguing spectacle, as a result of any “performance” by vice presidential understudies is carefully scrutinized for indicators they’re furthering their very own ambitions.
Whereas they have to study the traces, because it had been, and stay ever-prepared to step into the lead function if the star can’t go on, and even “rehearse” for the function by attending the funerals of overseas dignitaries and the like, there’s political peril in being seen as overtly hungering for that function, a lot much less strategizing towards that finish. (Therefore, Pence’s lavishly obsequious shows of loyalty to President Trump, though he clearly has a watch on 2024.)
If we establish with understudies in some methods, part of us additionally tends to view them with a sure cautious ambivalence. That angle is mirrored within the basic 1950 movie “All About Eve,” with its searing portrait of understudy Eve Harrington as a scheming, malevolent usurper. Or, not as basic however nonetheless indicative, the episode of “Seinfeld” by which an emotionally warped understudy eagerly replaces Bette Midler in a Broadway musical after George Costanza barrels into Midler throughout a softball sport. Being rendered hors de fight ends in one sad diva.
However the unhappiness can move from the opposite route, too. Theater and politics are each arenas rife with swollen egos, and a few vice-presidential understudies are unable to hide their perception that they needs to be No. 1. That was definitely true of the megalomaniacal Cheney, vice chairman to the youthful Bush, though Cheney solved this downside with a deft little bit of backstage legerdemain: He merely leveraged his understudy function into the way more highly effective job of director.
That choice wasn’t open to the title determine in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “The Understudy,” offered off-Broadway in 2009. All he can do is fume at having to play second fiddle to a film motion star whose onscreen trademark is barking “Get in the truck!” and is now making an attempt his hand onstage in an “undiscovered masterpiece” by … Franz Kafka. Then there’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from HBO’s “Veep,” who within the first couple of seasons incessantly, profanely, and hilariously chafed at being caught on the second rung of energy.
In fact, most of us by no means make it to the highest of our professions, irrespective of how assiduously we put together. However we will nonetheless console ourselves that we’ve at the very least bought that in widespread with loads of former vice presidents who reached for but by no means might fairly grasp the brass ring, resembling Gore, Quayle, Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey. (To not point out, from throughout the pond, the forlorn determine of Prince Charles, exemplar of the understudy who stays perpetually caught at No. 2.) Pence and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are likely hoping so as to add their names to the roster of earlier vice presidents who went on to win the presidency on their very own, resembling George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon (after an interim even longer than Biden’s).
In theater, understudies usually are members of the ensemble in addition to emergency backups for the star. Against this, nobody would contemplate vice presidents as mere members of the ensemble (however John Nance Garner’s well-known assertion that the vice presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” usually expurgated to “warm spit”). So for them there could be no equal to the out-of-nowhere in a single day success dramatized in “42nd Street,” when younger Peggy Sawyer is plucked from the refrain, thrust into the lead function of a serious musical, and exhorted, within the immortal phrases of director Julian Marsh: “You’re going on the market a teenager, however you’ve bought to come back again a star!”
Whereas understudies in theater usually go on for performances as wanted resulting from a star’s sickness or harm and never essentially as everlasting replacements, stage lore abounds in tales of understudies who held onto heart stage as soon as they made it there. Among the many most celebrated current examples is Sutton Foster. An unknown when she was elevated from understudy to the title function in “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ (2002), Foster went on to win a Tony Award, become one of Broadway’s leading lights, and star in a successful TV show (”Youthful”).
The scenario is extra sophisticated for former vice presidents. There isn’t any clear slate for them. They’re enacting new scenes in a pre-existing script, written by their predecessors, with all the bags that entails. To various extents Gore, Mondale, and Humphrey all paid a political price for his or her associations with the presidents they served earlier than vying for the highest job themselves.
Certainly, Humphrey, an achieved and consequential determine as a senator from Minnesota, turned an object of derision on the left when he ran for president in 1968 due to his loyalty, as vice chairman, to LBJ’s Vietnam Warfare insurance policies. Just a few years earlier, in “Whatever Became of Hubert?,” musical satirist Tom Lehrer had mocked Humphrey’s perceived lack of independence: “Whatever became of Hubert? Has anyone heard a thing? . . . Once a fiery liberal spirit/Ah, but now when he speaks, he must clear it.”
There, in a nutshell, is the dilemma for vice presidents, a conundrum that separates them from all the opposite understudies who search greater issues: They may not personal the highlight, however they do share sufficient of it to get burned.
Don Aucoin could be reached at email@example.com. Observe him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.