Writer Bill Kelter and artist Wayne Shellabarger have brightened this election season with their new book, Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance (set for release in November). In a departure from Top Shelf’s typical publishing material, this non-fiction effort is described by the publishing house as follows:
“It’s a tired but true cliché that every American Vice President is just a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world … a job they’ve often never really interviewed for. Who are these people? We all know about the one who shot his hunting partner in the face, but how about the tavern owner who once married one of his slaves and then sold her at auction when she tried to leave him? Or the one whose President went to his death regretting that he hadn’t had his Vice President hanged? Or the one who was too frequently inebriated to serve out the whole of his term? Over more than 200 years, the American voters have sent a platoon of rogues, cowards, drunks, featherweights, doddering geriatrics, bigots, and atrocious spellers to Washington D.C. to sit one bullet, cerebral hemorrhage, or case of pneumonia away from the highest office in the land. VEEPS tells the sordid, head-scratching, perversely-entertaining stories of these men we’ve chosen to ride shotgun in the biggest rig in democracy, without ever seriously considering the possibility that they might have to take the wheel. [296-Page Illustrated Hardcover (Non-Fiction), 5 5/8″ x 8 1/2]”
I’m amazed at the efforts connected to the fun book. As Top Shelf co-publisher Brett Warnock wrote in a recent email: “. . . because this story is too big for a book, along with the upcoming release of Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance, Top Shelf Productions and Rufus Pictures are proud to announce a companion film to the book. Road To Insignificance tells the story of Veeps creators, Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger, and their search for a new narrative for themselves along the road to the election and inauguration of America’s 47th Vice President…I actually co-directed this film, and the experience was outstanding, and made me even excited more about the book.”
I recently exchanged emails with Kelter and Shellabarger in a pretty fun exchange of emails about the book and the film. Enjoy. (And yes, in case you were wondering, the name Sarah Palin does come up…) Also, please note I asked a question or two based on galleys of the book, which has since been revised. But the authors’ candor was so amazing and unfiltered (about the creative process and outside struggles) that I felt it was extremely insightful (and hopefully beneficial to others on several fronts).
Tim O’Shea: Both of you are established as long-term fans/supporters (how would you characterize yourselves) of vice presidents. How was it that you decided to tackle the appreciation of VPs in a book?
Bill Kelter: Ah yes, the genesis story. The Veeps Project originated from one very drunk morning at my apartment in the Corbett-Lair Hill neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, in late 1999. It was two years after my girlfriend had moved out, and while she was there, she prodded me into nudging the landlord into letting us retile the bathroom floor. We replaced an old brown-and-white floral linoleum with alternating 10” x 10” tiles of white and British Racing Green. It looked fancy and modern, but aside from that, it did little for me.
At this point, I already had a minor fascination percolating with America’s disgraced Vice Presidents. I’d started with Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew, but then I heard Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Imus In The Morning” telling the story of Nelson Rockefeller dying in flagrante with his mysterious “assistant”, Meagan Marshak. His aides waited an hour after his heart attack before calling authorities, and apparently spent the time scouring the office and repositioning him in a more sympathetic position. After all, it just wouldn’t do for the paramedics to find the scion of one of the more monied families in America and the erstwhile Vice President of the United States frozen in naked shock as his heart arrested. “Dignity. Always dignity,” as Donald Lockwood said in Singin’ In The Rain, and Nelson’s aides did their best to afford as much to their boss.
Unfortunately, according to Ms. Goodwin’s account, they missed a detail or two when they redressed him and propped him up in his chair to appear that he was reading the paper when he died—they had the paper upside-down and his shoes on the wrong feet.
So, at that point in my life, I had it firmly in my brain that there was something inherently dysfunctional about our country’s seconds-in-charge—at least those who had led up to Al Gore.
Anyway, all this was swirling in my brain on that morning in question that one December many years ago. I was drunkenly brushing my teeth at 7:00 AM, after a long night of imbibing, and while I was looking at my floor to kill the time while I scrubbed my chompers, for some reason, it occurred to me that a great use of these bare white vinyl tiles might be to have portraits of disgraced Vice President laminated on each, with a quote highlighting their signature indiscretion.
It was a drunken inspiration that came out of nowhere—I still have no idea why it occurred to me–and it was the only thing I remembered the next morning, but I was at the library the next week searching for portrait books on the VPs that I could scan and any other tawdry info I could find on the VPs I didn’t know yet that could fill up my floor.
It took a few weeks, but I got it done and my bathroom floor was my entertainment for visiting friends and family. One of my female friends remarked how it was both comforting and creepy to have Nelson Rockefeller smirking up at her from my bathroom floor when she was peeing.
Wayne visited a few years later and was really excited with the idea. He snapped several pictures of the floor and banked it, thinking we could definitely make a project out of this.
A few years later, he mentioned to Brett that we were thinking of putting out a deck of Veeps trading cards ourselves, and Brett loved the idea and suggested doing a book.
Wayne Shellabarger: Bill’s bathroom floors have been important places for me for twenty years now. God knows how many million dollar ideas have died there to the sound of either Bill or me lightly knocking at four in the morning, asking the other “You okay in there, buddy?” This was the one that wasn’t going to get away.
I thought of Bill’s Veep bathroom floor as a hilarious and provocative art installation. Obviously it would be too difficult to organize viewings for the general public, so a book seemed like the next best thing. The most common comment I’ve heard from people so far is, “I’m reading it a lot in the bathroom.” Or “It’s really good bathroom reading.” That makes me so happy, the idea coming full circle like that.
O’Shea: Without getting too political (hell, how can you not, in a subject like this) did the picking of Palin minimize the absurdity of some chapters in your book?
Kelter: She’s definitely trumped them all. Even in 1988, even though I canceled all of my engagements just so I could watch the Quayle-Bentsen debate, the media frenzy about his apparently wanting intellect and George H.W. Bush’s perplexing choice had abated quite a bit, at least in comparison to the mania over the woman Stephanie Miller calls “Caribou Barbie.” Nearly 70 million people watched that debate last Thursday.
She’s the hockey-motherlode. I’ve never in my lifetime seen a Veep pick that has been so talked about this far into the election cycle. The baggage she brings to this race is on a par with Ivana Trump heading off to spend December in Switzerland—and a new piece of luggage seems to pop up almost every day.
We tried to keep the book very non-partisan, so I’ll try and do the same with this answer, but it would be a gargantuan sin of omission if I didn’t opine that this is a very dangerous character to place one heartbeat away from running our country, especially since it’s John McCain’s heartbeat we’re talking about.
Shellabarger: She exponentially expands the themes of the book. It’s like holding a funhouse mirror up to the already-warped funhouse mirror of the office. So frighteningly vivid and horrible. And if she is elected, George Mifflin Dallas drops to second most attractive Vice President.
O’Shea: How did you typically collaborate on a chapter–what influenced the decision to incorporate a graphic for some anecdotal element?
Kelter: I wrote the chapters, mostly over a two-month period in early 2007, after Top Shelf gave their go-ahead for the book. Wayne planned on a classic portrait for each, and we brainstormed scene ideas over the phone. If we had a great idea or a great story, we went with it, but like for Levi Parsons Morton, Charles Fairbanks, and a few others, there wasn’t much in the attic, so we decided not to force anything.
Shellabarger: I tried to come up with visuals that showed the absurd placement of these men and their environments. Tyler playing marbles. Hamlin peeling potatoes while VP. Cheney with one tiny bird strapped to the roof of his huge luxury hunting vehicle. Charles Curtis in a three-piece suit and Kaw Indian headdress. Nixon kicking a reporter in the shins. A guy like Teddy Roosevelt just wasn’t found in situations like that, so he doesn’t have an anecdotal illustration. A picture of a person behaving with dignity and competence would upset the flow of the book. Jefferson got one because he was so ridiculously excellent in so many areas it was comical to me.
O’Shea: Were there some aspects of the book (text or art) that had to be left out for space–or were you able to include everything?
Kelter: Space was never an issue—to a point, at least. We came away with a bigger book than we originally planned, but it’s still very readable. Time got to be a factor and at one point we just had to say, time’s up, please put down your pencils.
Shellabarger: Rehab really helped me with that.
O’Shea: Bill-not to pry into your personal life, but I think writers in a similar situation might find inspiration from your perspective. In the acknowledgments, you acknowledge completing the book despite many obstacles–including a head-on car accident and marital separation. How hard was it to keep plugging along with the project with these hardships in addition to juggling temp work along the way (a little more challenging for even the standard freelancer life)?
Kelter: Oh, go ahead and pry.
The end of my marriage sucked the life and the funny out of me in a big way, for a long time. Fortunately for the book, I had about two months in early 2007, right after Top Shelf gave the go-ahead on the book, when my business was drying up and before my marriage started imploding, where I had four or five hours a day to work on the book, and that’s where the lion’s share of the research and writing got done.
As it happened, I didn’t have much to do on the book between the time I finished most of the writing and when I was finally starting to see some daylight from splitting from my wife. Sitting around filthy, unshaven, and despondent didn’t hold much appeal, so it was great when election season rolled around and the VP blog (veepsblog.com) got going. Then we were working on the movie, as well as the final edits on the book, and that all-consuming whirlwind was, in its relentless distraction, the best divorce recovery I could have hoped for.
As for the head-on car accident, I got my bell rung and my glasses hurled into the backseat of my Saturn from the airbag deploying. I was a little dizzy for a few days.
I spent the next month in rental cars waiting for the woman’s insurance company to pony up, but that coincided with the first separation from my wife. For a short period, there was a very indigent element to my life, floating between people’s sofas and pulling my clothes out of the trunk, trying to find time and inspiration to write those last two chapters on Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman and my introduction.
It didn’t happen. Not until the separation was final and definitely heading toward divorce did I start feeling like writing again.
I was in full Olivia Soprano “Oh, pahwww you!” mode when I cited those miseries—it being the worst year of my life–including my drinking affections. They were in the galleys but I’ve rewritten the acknowledgments for the print edition and excluded those issues.
O’Shea: And Wayne, from your perspective, were you concerned about the fate of the book when Bill encountered these hardships?
Shellabarger: Well, Bill and I were living what was easily the worst year of both our lives, emotionally, financially and nutritionally. I was also coming off a divorce that left me shattered and shell-shocked. I spent 2007 and the first half of 2008 hitting my alcoholic bottom. To bypass the unpleasant details, that 28 days of rehab in April did wonders. No more sitting for hours in the shower, crying in the dark. Bill’s resolve and constitution in the face of his problems was very key in helping me begin to get my act together. We both always knew where the other guy was at emotionally, thank goodness, or we wouldn’t have been able to tolerate each others’ wild turns of blind faith and morbid depression. We were equally concerned for each others well-being. I’m amazed we survived. I like to think we came to understand many of the Vice Presidents as real people because of our own obstacles.
O’Shea: Looking at the book as a whole, Bill which chapters were the most challenging to research and Wayne which were the hardest to research and/or render?
Kelter: This is the only area where I’ll at least partially answer for Wayne, though I’m sure he’ll have his own comments to add: We both absolutely hated doing Levi Parsons Morton. Wayne hated drawing him, and for my part, there was absolutely nothing there. He was a millionaire, and a machine creature, but utterly uncontroversial and uninteresting.
Shellabarger: Yeah, Morton was a king-size drag. Very dull. Bill and I didn’t realize until about six months after the book was pretty much finished how little passion we had for Morton. The portrait that gave me the most trouble was definitely Nixon. His persona has been so ruthlessly caricatured, more so than any veep or President for that matter, it was difficult to do with the fresh eyes of say, John C. Calhoun. I did about eight different portraits of him until settling on the one in the book. I really tried to find something pleasant or even benign there and I think I failed.
O’Shea: How did you all arrive at using (at least what I found to be) a funky typeface?
Kelter: That was the production team at Top Shelf. I wasn’t sure at first, but it really grew on me. They do this for a living and they do it well.
O’Shea: Which vice presidential information surprised each of you the most?
Kelter: The deep, decades-long, and probably romantic relationship between Franklin Pierce’s VP, William Rufus DeVane King, and the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan. They lived together for many years and were the subject of many rumors throughout Washington, D.C.
The other biggest surprise for me was the office was vacant for 37 of its first 176 years. Vice Presidents would die or succeed dying Presidents and the office was seen as so unessential or poorly regarded that there was no succession mechanism in place until the 25th Amendment.
Shellabarger: I was surprised to learn that, until the 12th Amendment in 1804, the Presidential candidate who received the 2nd most votes became the Vice President. Fun to imagine today, huh?
O’Shea: Looking at the supporting research at the back of the book, Wikipedia is a frequent source for the book’s information–were you hesitant using the cite as a source–given the evolving nature of the resource.
Kelter: Wikipedia was only an initial or supplemental source. I never relied on that alone for anything that went into the book. It gave me some nuggets, and I went looking for solid sources from there. In the interests of full disclosure, I included Wikipedia and ever Web article that I tapped in researching my Veeps. If I only found something on Wikipedia, I didn’t go with it. I think Wikipedia is a great resource for starting your research, but it should never be the source, on anything.
For that reason, I reluctantly had to drop the anecdote about Al Gore beheading a man in a sword fight at a 1982 Ren-Faire in Cobb County Georgia.
O’Shea: So, did Rockefeller’s redesign of the VP logo stick around or was it a short-timer, like him? And Wayne, from a graphic perspective, what did you think of the redesign?
Kelter: Executive Order 11884, October 7, 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford, is still the law, and so the seal still stands.
Shellabarger: Like Bill says, the law is the law. The redesign definitely perked up the eagle from its more “relaxed”, Coolidge-like character. The one I really like is the first one, used from 1936-1948. The eagle is all navy blue instead of natural colors and it’s really quite striking and bold. Bill and I affectionately refer to it as “The Bluebird.”
O’Shea: Has the degree of scandal increased in politics over the years increased–or is merely the ability of politicians to hide scandals decreased?
Kelter: People are people, and they’re as rotten as they’ve ever been. The only difference now is the ever-present camera and the 24-hour news cycle. Even ten years ago, George Allen could have gotten away with his “Macaca” comment. Ted Stevens could have lived the rest of his life and served as long as he wanted without the Feds caring about what kind of quid pro quos and secret deals were going on up in the hinterlands. No one ever would have known about Larry Craig’s wide stance, and Mark Foley would have been the uncle that the family whispered about and just tried to keep away from the kids. Something leaks out now and it’s all over the Internet within hours, and often less. If it’s just a scurrilous rumor, it’s still out there. If it’s got legs, it’s like kudzu.
Shellabarger: Imagine the Kennedy campaign or the Wm. Rufus DeVane King campaign with this amount of scrutiny. I would imagine the level of scandal-worthy behavior has actually declined. If Aaron Burr was alive today, I doubt he would be e-mailing his daughter with his ratings of the quality of recently visited prostitutes.
O’Shea: Looking at the Quayle chapter, do you both wonder if historians will truly recognize how much Roger Ailes started reshaping American political discourse well before his Fox News gig?
Kelter: Great question. I think they already are. I was at a contemporary media art exhibit in San Francisco in 1992 when I saw this addressed for the first time. They showed a loop of Presidential ads through the years. The LBJ “Daisy” ad, about Goldwater, is in a class by itself. It was out of the blue, and it’s so well-crafted and pitch perfect for the pervasive and universally purchased fear of the fallout shelter/post-Cuban Missile Crisis era. It’s creepy how harrowing it is to see 44 years hence. But it was a moment in time. The Willie Horton ad was a watershed, and a bad one. This ugly, snarling werewolf baby of a political ad came out, and while most of us didn’t realize at the time that this was how all the babies of the future were going to come out, something felt very different after that ad and that campaign.
The more you look at the history of Ailes and his crew, the more historically seismic it seems. Their tentacles go back to Nixon and CREEP in 1972—and even before: Ailes was an executive producer for The Mike Douglas Show where he befriended Nixon and offered his opinions about why Nixon lost the 1960 debate to JFK. Nixon hired as executive producer of his TV spots
O’Shea: With the Chapter 44 end-notes, you note that your source quotes Queensryche on his website. Really your research notes are a tad more quirky and entertaining than the average scholarly document. Did you hesitate at indulging in goofy asides for fear of undermining the tone of the research–or were you not concerned. Wayne were you able to slip in any graphic elements or visual asides for the eagle eye readers of the book?
Kelter: I don’t think I’ll ever get a table at a restaurant over Michael Beschloss or Doris Kearns Goodwin. I only do myself a disservice when I try and be too serious about my whatever I’m doing. I don’t do earnest well. We had fun with the chapters in the book, but we had a lot more fun with, for example, the index.
At the urging of our terrific editor, Robert Venditti, I took a few things down a notch, while other times we just said thanks, but we think it works, so we’re going with it. I really appreciated the latitude Top Shelf offered in that respect.
Besides, I did think I would have been remiss while, in mentioning Professor Gudehus’ bonafides, neglecting to note that he did, in fact, quote Queensryche on his Web page.
Shellabarger: I’ve always loved putting in little visual surprises and subliminal details to reward the second glance. But until you asked the question, I didn’t realize I didn’t do this at all with Veeps. I’m really surprised at myself, actually. I guess I was just taking this project very seriously. That said, I’ve had dozens of people comment on subliminal imagery in my drawings that were not consciously intended. I’m going to have to go back and see if I put any pornographic images in Schuyler Colfax’s beard.
O’Shea: How odd was it to have a documentary made about your efforts?
Kelter: We were initially putting the movie together as a slightly embellished mockumentary, but as we went along it really developed into an entertaining narrative. It was fun, exhausting, and we’re going to have a great story and full-length feature that we can all be proud of. Astonishingly when we started to send out thank you cards after the filming, we realized that we had over 60 people who donated their time and services to making our neat little project so. That’s incredibly gratifying. It became far larger than we ever anticipated, and in the end I have an enormous respect for people who do this kind of thing for a living. It ain’t glamorous. It’s a lot of hard work and very long hours. They earn that craft services table, and then some.
Shellabarger: I love fully executed wildly wrong ideas- that’s what I originally loved about Bill’s Veeps bathroom floor- and I think a movie about the Vice Presidents, much less two guys who love Vice Presidents, is definitely one of those. To paraphrase Monty Burns, “That’s as likely as a musical about the common house cat, or the King of Siam!”
O’Shea: What would you like readers to take away from reading the book? (Other than a feeling they got their money’s worth, of course).
Kelter: For me the two most satisfying things I’ve heard since we’ve been showing people the book have been, “You guys are pretty funny” and “Wow, I never knew __________.” That’s what we set out to do. Hopefully we’ve produced an entertaining and educational read and people will want to see more from us. We did our best.
And kudos and thanks to the generous and talented gang at Top Shelf. When you see the hardcover, which just started arriving this week, I think you’ll agree that they’ve made this a very beautiful book.
Shellabarger: I’ve always gotten a thrill when someone’s bizarre, unfathomable obsessions make it to the marketplace in a pure form. So I hope this book will inspire someone to explore whatever they’re into beyond any amount of common sense. Then make it I book I can read.