John Adams once called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Theodore Roosevelt said he would “rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president.” Strange, then, that the National Portrait Gallery should choose this tedium of an office as the subject of a major exhibit. But “Presidents in Waiting” wisely emphasizes the one truly important aspect of the vice presidency, namely patience. The exhibit features portraits of the 14 vice presidents who, like Adams and Roosevelt, acceded to the nation’s highest office. As art, the visages of these men don’t have much to recommend them—Chester Arthur’s prodigious mutton chops notwithstanding—but the Portrait Gallery’s success has always lain in history over artistry. Its storied halls, whose Greek revivalist aesthetics surpass those of most of the artwork, present the perfect milieu for Roosevelt and his 13 compatriots to become professors of history and tell the tales of their ascension from the least significant office in the land to the most.
THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW FROM 11:30 A.M.-6 P.M., SUN.-SAT., TO JAN. 2010 AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, 750 NINTH STREET NW. FREE. (202) 332-8767.