Thomas Marshall is one of the unknown and generally disregarded Vice Presidents….but…
About Tom Marshall
Thomas Riley Marshall (1854-1925) was an attorney, and like James Madison, diminutive in stature – perhaps only 5’2 or 3”.
An Indiana Hoosier, he gravitated to the Democratic Party, but behind the scenes. He shied away from the spotlight of candidacy. Blessed with a witty, frequently sardonic, and occasionally deprecating sense of humor, he was a popular emcee or keynote speaker promoting others on the Indiana Democratic rubber chicken circuit.
Early in his career, he developed a distinct thirst for whiskey, and his prospects were somewhat curtailed. Then, in his middle years, he met the proverbial “good woman” who changed his life. He gave up strong drink, turned everything around, did well and eventually was elected Governor of Indiana in 1909.
In 1912, according to a century-old custom of geopolitical accommodation, the genial Indiana Governor Marshall (who most people liked) was elected Vice President to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson (who everyone respected). Wilson had not been in favor of Marshall in the second-spot, but he acquiesced.
The Office of Vice President 1912
According the the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate. Period. Nothing else is articulated, thus he serves at the President’s pleasure. (NOTE: Of course it is proscribed that the VP assumes office at the death/incapacity of the POTUS. In Marshall’s case, that is another whopping good story!)
By 1912, the office was still mainly ceremonial – ribbon cutting, ground-breaking, and, as Marshall later quipped, “the chief funeral goer in the country.” Occasionally the VP sat on a couple of boards. Wilson did not particularly like or esteem Marshall, believing him to be pleasant enough, but a namby-pamby, whose views frequently were at odds with the President. Marshall was not invited/included in any high-level conferences, and later admitted that nobody took him or his ideas seriously, anyway.
Because of the traditional high prestige/low performance perception of the office of Vice President, his staff consisted of three employees: secretary, part-time telegrapher and driver. He had a car for his convenience, but maintenance and gas was his own responsibility. Many post-Civil War VPs took substantial salary cuts in order to serve. In 1913, the annual stipend was only $12,000 (compared to the Presidential $75,000), and many expenses were paid out-of-pocket.
Asst. Secretary of the Navy F.D. Roosevelt
In 1913, thirtyish Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a reputation similar to Marshall: charming, affable, and a lightweight. However, he was possessed of a name that was a household word. Having served as a Democrat in the NY State Legislature, he campaigned semi-vigorously for Wilson (against Uncle Theodore), and was rewarded with Uncle Theodore’s old job: the #2 spot to the Secretary of the Navy.
With a little time on his hand, and as a naval aficionado, FDR discovered that while the POTUS had his own flag to be displayed if/when he “came aboard,” the VP had no special ensign. He doodled a design, had it submitted and approved, and a VPOTUS naval flag was made.
Naturally a ceremony for its inauguration was in order, and in 1915, the San Diego, a cruiser anchored in San Francisco harbor near the Panama-Pacific Industrial Exposition grounds, offered a perfect opportunity to hoist the new VP flag. Thomas Marshall was duly invited to be the guest of honor.
Raising the Flag
Indiana is a land-locked state, home of a few lakes at best, none of which are suitable for large naval vessels. Thus Governor (and now-VP) Marshall had never been on a naval ship in his life. He was given no information or preparation on what to expect for the ceremony – other than to wear formal clothes, since the military has always been an institution of traditional bells and whistles, pomp and ceremony.
VP Marshall came unescorted, wearing his daytime formal clothing: grey striped trousers, cutaway coat, “boiled” shirt and ascot tie, and patent leather shoes. He had pearl grey gloves, a top hat and cane. He was also smoking his ubiquitous cigar, for which he was famous, along with his quip advising that “what the country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”
As the VP was piped aboard, the sailors in their dress uniforms, were lined up along the railings; the officers and guests (including FDR), in their proscribed stations. The Vice President was escorted to his assigned place of honor.
With no shipboard experience or knowledge of proper etiquette, Marshall respectfully stood at attention, hat on head, cigar in mouth and both hands occupied by his walking stick and gloves.
Then the band struck up The Star Spangled Banner, and Marshall, surprised by the blast of music and realizing the situation, quickly shifted the gloves and cane to his left hand, removed his hat – and cigar – and somehow managed to salute.
To complicate the already complicated posture, as the music ended, the cannon boomed a salute, startling the poor Vice President, and everything went flying two feet into the air in all directions – hat, cane, gloves and cigar!
To make it worse, the newsreel cameras were rolling.
The Admiral and FDR helped retrieve the mortified Vice President’s possessions. FDR, who is usually credited with telling this tale, did not know whether to remain respectfully composed, embarrassed for the Vice President, or to suppress a laughing fit at a very funny situation. He managed to do all three.
Thomas Marshall was a man not known for very much except for his good sense of humor. But not this time.
He was horrified by the chain of events, and departed as soon as humanly (and ceremonially) possible. It was not only a personal embarrassment, but an embarrassment to his office.
After he saw the humiliating newsreel footage, he vowed he would never set foot on another ship. And he never did.
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974
Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing