by Carmen Doyle
“What this country needs is a good five cent cigar” may be the most famous line ever spoken by Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President. Another Vice President no one ever heard of, Marshall was known for his wit, but he had a hard time working under Wilson, who was known for his quick intelligence. Marshall had down home humor. Wilson had political wit.
Marshall was from Columbia City and rose to Indiana governor before being selected as the vice presidential candidate. Marshall considered himself a progressive and Indiana was an important swing state for Democrats at the time. (Yes, Indiana at one point was Democratic!) He and Wilson did not see eye to eye. Marshall was considered conservative by many in D.C., known for his folksy stories and humor and not his political acumen. The Vice-President has really has only one duty- to be ready to be President. Otherwise, he does whatever the President doesn’t want to do. (Wilson had previously expressed his opinion of the Vice-Presidency, saying that the Vice President’s only importance is that he might cease being Vice President.)
Marshall originally did not want to be Vice President; he only took it at his wife’s request. Marshall felt that the salary was too small--the Vice-President made six times less than the President and had to provide his own housing, as well as his own staff. He was provided with a car, but he had to supply his own gas and tires. Wilson was idealistic and outgoing, everything Marshall was not. Wilson broke tradition by addressing Congress himself, being his own lobbyist. (The majority of Presidents before this had used the Vice President as a go-between.) Marshall was kept out of the loop and was aware that Wilson may not have liked him much. (Marshall once gave Wilson a book inscribed “from your only vice.”) Marshall was also aware that Wilson would not give any of Marshall’s ideas merit. Marshall was mainly relegated to playing host to various foreign diplomats that Wilson did not want to meet.
When Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, leaving him incapacitated, Marshall refused to take over the Presidency. (The Twenty-fifth Amendment, which allows the Vice President to assume Presidential duties when the President is unable, was not passed until decades years later.) Marshall was also kept uninformed about Wilson’s health, and was the victim of a hoax in which he was told that Wilson had died. But when Marshall went to the White House to see what his next step should be, he found that Wilson was still alive. (It’s believed that many of the Presidential decisions made during this time may have been made by First Lady Edith Wilson, who did not like Marshall.)
Perhaps the best example of Marshall’s humor and the view of the Vice-Presidency is his statement that, “There were two brothers. One ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice-President, and nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”