In the spring of 1932, George and Ira Gershwin’s Broadway musical, “Of Thee I Sing,” spoofed Washington politics, including a vice president named Alexander Throttlebottom, who could get inside the White House only on public tours. The tour guide, who failed to recognize Throttlebottom, at one point engaged him in a discussion of the vice-presidency:
Guide: Well, how did he come to be Vice President?
Throttlebottom: Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.
Guide: What does he do all the time?
Throttlebottom: Well, 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.(1)
Audiences laughed heartily at these lines, in part because they could easily identify the hapless Throttlebottom with the incumbent vice president, Charles Curtis. Curtis was never close to President Herbert Hoover and played no significant role in his administration. Despite Curtis’ many years of experience as a member of the House and Senate and as Senate majority leader, his counsel was rarely sought on legislative matters. His chief notoriety as vice president came as a result of a messy social squabble over protocol, which only made him appear ridiculous. Many Republicans hoped to dump Curtis from the ticket when Hoover ran for reelection. Given Curtis’ Horatio Alger-style rise in life, and his long and successful career in Congress, how did he become such a Throttlebottom as vice president?
Formative Years on the Reservation
Although colorful in itself, Charles Curtis’ actual life story often became obscured by its political mythology.(2) He began life in 1860 in North Topeka, Kansas, where he spent his earliest years partly in the white and partly in the Native American community. The son of Orren Curtis, a white man, and Ellen Pappan, who was one-quarter Kaw Indian, Charles Curtis on his mother’s side was the great-great grandson of White Plume, a Kansa-Kaw chief who had offered assistance to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. White Plume’s daughter married Louis Gonville, a French-Canadian fur trader, and their daughter, Julie Gonville, married Louis Pappan. As a result of the Kansa-Kaw treaty of 1825, the tribe relinquished its claims to its traditional lands in Missouri and Kansas. A two-million-acre reservation was established west of Topeka for full-blooded Indians, while a series of fee-simple land grants along the Kansas river were set aside for “half-breeds”—those who had intermarried with whites. Curtis’ grandmother Julie Gonville Pappan received “Half-Breed Reservation No. Four,” directly across the river from the Kansas capital, where she and her husband ran a profitable ferry business.