Curtis Left A Legacy of Firsts
Curtis serving as the first, and only, Native American vice president wasn’t the only “first” during his tenure. Curtis swore his oath of office on a bible, the first vice president to take his oath in the same manner as the president. At the time of his election, he was the oldest vice president in history, being 69 at the time of his oath of office. However, he was surpassed in 1949 with the election of the 71-year-old Alben W. Barkley as Harry Truman’s vice president. Curtis was also the first vice president born west of the Mississippi River. His final first was the employment of the first woman to serve as secretary in the office of the vice president. He hired a Kansan, Lola M. Williams, who had worked for him when he was a Kansas senator, ending the traditional male monopoly on the office.
Despite bringing a legacy of “firsts” to the office of the vice president, his tenure was neither happy nor successful. Curtis ran against the eventual nominee, Herbert Hoover, in an acrimonious primary that featured Curtis leveling some hefty insults against Hoover. He was often called “Sir Herbert” by rival Republicans, in an attempt to denigrate the brief time he spent living in England. Curtis cut a far more populist figure, with his friendly demeanor and rural ties than the highly educated and aristocratic-seeming Hoover.
While they traded many barbs during the primary, once Hoover was selected it became immediately apparent that Republicans needed a rural and “common man” type of figure to round out Hoover’s ticket. Despite the lack of any love lost between the two men, Hoover was amicable to Curtis being added to his card, and Curtis readily agreed despite seeing the vice presidency as a somewhat useless position. Though they won in a landslide, Hoover didn’t seem to credit any of their success to his vice president and mostly locked him out of the affairs of running the country.
The most noteworthy incidents of Curtis’ tenure as vice president were all rather negative and embarrassing. First was an issue of protocol, with Curtis’ half-sister Dolly demanding to be seated, as Curtis’ hostess, ahead of the haughty Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wife of the speaker of the house. Negative press followed him after this incident, and he became associated with his second embarrassment: a comparison to the useless vice president Throttlebottom from the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing.
The last, and most damaging, of Curtis’ missteps, came when he was asked about the Great Depression afflicting the United States’ economy. Curtis replied with the infamous ill-fated comment “good times are just around the corner” which would come to haunt President Hoover and help cost him (and Curtis) re-election. The disastrous state of the economy, which the public primarily laid at Hoover’s feet, ultimately handed the election in a landslide to Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After serving his one term as vice president, Curtis retired from politics and spent the four remaining years of his life practicing law in Washington D.C. He died in 1936 at the age of 76.
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