WASHINGTON -- Once again, the standing political joke about the irrelevance and incompetence of the American vice president is enjoying a rerun, this time on cable television. In the new HBO comedy series, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine of "Seinfeld" fame) plays Selina Meyer, the well-meaning airhead of a fictional administration.
The show is being widely hailed as a solid take on Washington as it really is, with know-it-all White House aides, press secretaries and other types feeding off the reflected power and glory of the POTUS, as insiders refer to the supreme boss.
John Adams, described it to his wife, Abigail: "In this I am nothing. But I could be everything."
Beyond that, the show's basic premise plays off all the old cliches. Like the one about the twin brothers, one of whom was lost at sea and the other who became vice president; neither of them were ever heard from again. Or the assessment of Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's veep, that in the office he was "like a man in a cataleptic state: he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him."
Wilson himself summed up the popular conception thus: "The chief embarrassment in discussing his office is, that in explaining how little there is to say about it, one has evidently said all there is to say." Or, in the pithy, sanitized version of FDR's standby, "Cactus Jack" Garner, the office was "not worth a bucket of warm spit."
It's true that the roster of early vice presidents was rife with forgettable names like Daniel D. Tompkins, William R. King, William A. Wheeler and Levi P. Morton. And that a favorite Broadway stage character called Alexander Throttlebottom, played by the bumbling Victor Moore, couldn't get a library card for lack of a required reference.
More recently, the first President George Bush's veep, Dan Quayle, endured endless ridicule for a rash of gaffes, including the time he counseled a boy in a school spelling bee to spell Ireland's favorite vegetable "potatoe." Even the current occupant, Joe Biden, has been subject to repeated jibes for off-the-cuff remarks, and for talking nonstop.
Nevertheless, the fact is that in the last 35 years or so, most American vice presidents have been men of wide political experience and esteem, starting with the often-demeaned President Jimmy Carter's selection of Walter Mondale as his running mate in 1976. Carter used Mondale as a true partner in governance, giving him an office in the Whites House and full access to all his meetings, including with foreign leaders, a practice followed by most succeeding presidents.
Over the last nearly 20 years, particularly, the vice presidents of both parties -- Democrats Al Gore and Biden and Republican Dick Cheney -- were conspicuously involved in key policy-making roles in their administrations, with public acknowledgment by their presidents of their roles.
Gore was given the leading voice in the environmental and technological aspects of the Bill Clinton terms. Cheney especially was regarded as a power in the George W. Bush years, with his own staff paralleling that of the president's in many respects. His dominant influence in matters of prisoner interrogations after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in the expansion of presidential powers, were hallmarks of that administration.
In the current Obama tenure, Biden was influential in encouraging a refocus on counterterrorism as opposed to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in supporting Obama's setting of deadlines for eventual withdrawal of American forces in both battle-weary countries. Despite recurring, ill-informed talk that he will be replaced by Hillary Clinton as Obama's running mate this year, Biden has remained entrenched and openly supported by Obama.
All the experience of the last 20 years flies in the face of the premise of the fictional "Veep." The notion of Louis-Dreyfus as a doofus is certainly good for laughs, but it should not be taken as affirmation of the vice presidency as still a ticket to nowhere.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)