The forgotten history of the ‘undercard’ debate

Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks after visiting the This Is the Place Monument, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The monument commemorates the end of the westward journey of Mormon pioneers to Utah as well as early explorers of the West. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Election 2020

Vice president’s office was once ‘manipulative’ and a ‘divisive force’

Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

This week Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris will debate in Salt Lake City.

The debate will have new rules following the outbreak of COVID-19 that has impacted President Donald Trump, Sens. Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, Thom Tillis, and other top GOP officials as well as White House media correspondents. The two debaters will be at least 12 feet apart.

Pew Research calls the vice presidential debate “an undercard.” And since the first debate in 1976 there have been far less viewers for that second card. “The lone exception to this rule came in 2008, when more people (69.9 million) tuned in to the vice presidential debate between then-Sen. Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin than watched any of the three debates between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain,” Pew Research reported.

There is another lens to consider: Native American history.

Vice President Mike Pence reacts to audience members after a roundtable with agriculture and food supply leaders about steps being taken to ensure the food supply remains secure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Friday, May 8, 2020, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
In this May 8 photo, Vice President Mike Pence reacts to audience members after a roundtable with agriculture leaders in West Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

There are a lot of stories to tell, starting with the number of men and women who ran for that office. Charles Curtis, Kaw, was elected vice president in 1928. LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was a candidate for the Citizens Party in 1980. And Winona LaDuke, White Earth Nation, was the Green Party nominee for the office twice, first in 1996 and again in 2000. LaDuke also received an Electoral College vote in 2016 from Robert Satiacum, Jr. in Washington state.

When LaDuke ran in 1996 with Ralph Nader she rhetorically asked if a Native woman should even be considered? "I would argue yes," she said. "In fact, I would question the inverse. Can men of privilege ... who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children ... actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not."

The 1980 election with Barry Commoner and LaDonna Harris was interesting for a lot of reasons. Commoner campaigned on the idea of a better use of science, particularly on environmental issues. Commoner was a professor of environmental science at Washington University in St. Louis. Commoner and Harris had the goal of winning enough votes to make the Citizen’s Party a permanent force. Then that was the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide and the votes did not materialize.

Charles-Curtis
Charles Curtis (Library of Congress)

Charles Curtis was a powerful politician before becoming Herbert Hoover’s vice president.

The journalist William White said Curtis’ politics were always personal. “Issues never bothered him,” he wrote.

A popular musical in the 1930s mocked the vice president saying he won the office because they put names in a hat “and he lost.” Then what does he do? “He sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn't get in.”

The joke worked because audiences saw the fictional Throttlebottom as Curtis.

But on federal Indian policy, Curtis is most remembered for The Curtis Act, the 1898 law that stripped Oklahoma tribes of sovereignty and land.

When Curtis died, Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier wrote that Curtis deeply regretted some of his early views toward Indian affairs. He described the former vice president as “no brilliance of mind and aspired and pretended to none. He had superlative common sense, absolute intellectual honesty, and an instinct for the right causes."

Perhaps the most curious relationship, though, between the office of vice president and tribal leaders started during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.

In March 1968, Johnson signed an executive order creating the National Council on Indian Opportunity. The council was a mix of federal officials and tribal leaders, headed by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. At its first meeting the council announced a July 16 commemorative stamp of Chief Joseph, saluting the American Indian.

Not much in terms of policy, though.

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During the Nixon Administration, Vice President Spiro Agnew was more serious about the council. The vice president’s staff worked closely with the administration on policies ranging from the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. So much so that a 1974 commentary in the NCAI Bulletin said tribal leaders could “engage in eyeball-to-eyeball discussions with those cabinet officers responsible for those programs serving Indians.”

Agnew proclaimed in January 1970 that “Indian people are still our most poverty-stricken Americans – and it is outrageous that this should be so. It is my purpose and the purpose of this council to attack that raw truth and to do so effectively within the term of this Administration.”

That same year “to the delight of many off-reservation Indian people, the council held hearings on the ‘Urban Indian situation.’ These hearings implied a new advocacy role on behalf of urban Indian people, but urban Indians were subsequently abandoned and then condemned as ‘militants’ by NCIO,” according to a 1974 American Indian Press Association commentary.

The vice president’s office also attempted to shape tribal politics. The office supported the creation of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association as an alternative to the National Congress of American Indians.

The American Indian Press Association reported that “some observers believed that the reason behind NCAI’s fall from grace may have been the close affiliation of NCAI President Leon F. Cook with the Democratic Presidential Campaign of George McGovern.” Then NCAI Executive Director Charles Trimble told the press association that the vice president’s council had become “manipulative” and a “divisive force.”

But by 1974 the experiment was over.

The new vice president, Gerald Ford, had no interest in serving as the council’s chair. And, as the press association wrote, the council had “fell into such disfavor with such a large segment of the national Indian community that even its death caused little notice.”

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

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