The men’s room at the United States Vice Presidential Museum is in fine working order — really — but its patrons are still in for a bit of a shock when they look up to see a large photo of 1980s Dan Quayle hanging on the wall. Photo Quayle is doing what the Real Life Quayle would have done here: looking the other way, making the best of an awkward situation.
Your correspondent pulled into the museum in late February of last year. It’s not that easy to reach, because the airport at Huntington, Indiana, is too small for commercial airlines to bother. So I flew to Indianapolis, rented a car, and drove northeast about 100 miles. It had snowed earlier in the week, and the fields and lawns reflected the overcast glare back at me, adding annoyance to the gloom.
So readers can probably understand why the Quayle photo made such a strong impression on me: whenever you travel to some place new, you best remember the first thing you focus on.
The bathroom also had a rather good painting of a bend in the Salamonie River as well as another vast pic of Quayle and Bush Sr. standing on a porch. I considered venturing into the ladies’ room to check out the art there — in the interest of good journalism, of course — but thought better of it.
I arrived on a Thursday. Executive Director Daniel Johns was going to give me an official tour the next day but I wanted to drop in and case the joint. The museum has two floors. The top floor is devoted to Huntington’s most famous son, while the bottom floor strains to contain all the other vice presidents.
The exhibits downstairs strike a better balance of the high and the low than most political museums, with a mix of original artifacts, campaign trinkets, newspaper clippings, and old magazines from more playful times. Want to read an original account of George Washington’s and John Adams’s annual salaries? The Museum has got that (Washington: $25,000; Adams: $5,000), along with typed and handwritten letters by vice presidents, a vinyl record titled Spiro T. Agnew Speaks Out, a $100 ticket to a 1954 Richard Nixon fundraising dinner, and more.
Each vice president has his own exhibit with a description of his tenure in office and at least one original artifact. Space is limited. The Gerald Ford exhibit is stuck around an odd corner, and Nelson Rockefeller’s can be found above the water fountain. An historical timeline of veep lives set against major world events has been shoehorned in.
NEAR THE FRONT of the display area, off to the left as you’re coming in, is an exhibit that celebrates Indiana’s special status in the veepstakes. With five vice presidents — Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall, and Quayle — Indiana is the second most vice-presidential state in the Union.
State Highway 9 is known as the “highway of the vice presidents” because it connects the historic homes of Quayle, Hendricks, and Marshall. In 1916, both Republicans and Democrats had Hoosiers at the bottom of the ticket. Only the far more populous New York has produced more second bananas.
The vice presidency is a marker both of Indiana’s past influence and frustrations. Not one of its five veeps went on to become president or even receive presidential nominations. The Indiana Five seem almost cursed in retrospect.
Colfax was finished off by a minor scandal and knocked off the ticket for Grant’s second term. Hendricks had a national election stolen right out from under him. Fairfax fell victim to party infighting and then failed to win back the vice presidency. Marshall should have become president but he was kept out of the White House by a scheming coterie of Wilson advisors and the first lady, as well as his own sense of decency.
AS I VENTURED upstairs, the first thing I saw was Quayle’s smiling mug again. This one was attached to a body. The life-sized photo mockup, circa 1988, is dressed in a navy blue blazer, white buttondown shirt and red tie with blue ornaments.
It’s the sort of carnival prop that people set up so that you can say not so much “I had my picture taken with Dan Quayle!” but rather, “Look, I had my picture taken with this life-size cutout of Dan Quayle!”p>The Quayle floor of the Museum has many of the same features as the ground floor but considerably more spacious. On the whole, it works, but the larger palette produces some oddities. Where the timeline of all the vice presidents is compact, Quayle’s is almost garrulous. It sets Quayle family history against world events like so: br>
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