I happened to be in the stands at Foxboro Stadium with my father-in-law on that fateful day in 2001 when a devastating tackle knocked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of the game, whereupon his little-known backup — some kid named Tom Brady — trotted onto the field.
Though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were witnessing the first page of a historic chapter in one of the most potent narratives there is: The story of the understudy who finally gets a shot at the lead role, the bit player who gains top billing.
Another new chapter of that story is about to unfold on the largest possible public stage. When former vice president Joe Biden is inaugurated as president in January, it will shine a renewed light on that age-old phenomenon, drawn from the theater, of the onetime understudy-turned-star. Like any former understudy, Biden will be determined to put his own stamp on the role.
For the rest of us, his rise from No. 2 to No. 1 (albeit after a four-year interim) embodies a fable that comes true just often enough — in politics, entertainment, sports, and in the lives and careers we see unfolding around us — to maintain our belief in it.
Perhaps we need to believe in it because it corresponds with how we see ourselves and our own potential, with our own delayed-but-not-to-be denied destiny. Perhaps the first half of the word is what speaks to us: Understudy as in underdog, underestimated, underrated. Yes, we tell ourselves, we may be on the undercard now, but surely we’re headed for the marquee.
That hoped-for trajectory is embedded in the title of a CNN documentary scheduled to premiere Dec. 5: “President in Waiting.” Focusing on the relationships between presidents and their vice presidents, it will feature interviews with all six living vice presidents — Biden, Mike Pence, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and Walter Mondale — as well as former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.
Far more than in theater or sports or any other arena, the dance of power and ambition between presidents and vice presidents — i.e., stars and understudies — is a tricky minuet. It can make for an intriguing spectacle, because any “performance” by vice presidential understudies is closely scrutinized for signs they are furthering their own ambitions.
While they must learn the lines, as it were, and remain ever-prepared to step into the lead role if the star can’t go on, and even “rehearse” for the role by attending the funerals of foreign dignitaries and the like, there’s political peril in being seen as openly hungering for that role, much less strategizing toward that end. (Hence, Pence’s lavishly obsequious displays of loyalty to President Trump, even though he clearly has an eye on 2024.)
If we identify with understudies in some ways, a part of us also tends to view them with a certain wary ambivalence. That attitude is reflected in the classic 1950 film “All About Eve,” with its searing portrait of understudy Eve Harrington as a scheming, malevolent usurper. Or, not as classic but still indicative, the episode of “Seinfeld” in which an emotionally warped understudy eagerly replaces Bette Midler in a Broadway musical after George Costanza barrels into Midler during a softball game. Being rendered hors de combat results in one unhappy diva.
But the unhappiness can flow from the other direction, too. Theater and politics are both arenas rife with swollen egos, and some vice-presidential understudies are unable to conceal their belief that they should be No. 1. That was certainly true of the megalomaniacal Cheney, vice president to the younger Bush, although Cheney solved this problem with a deft bit of backstage legerdemain: He simply leveraged his understudy role into the far more powerful job of director.
That option wasn’t open to the title figure in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “The Understudy,” presented off-Broadway in 2009. All he can do is fume at having to play second fiddle to a movie action star whose onscreen trademark is barking “Get in the truck!” and is now trying his hand onstage in an “undiscovered masterpiece” by ... Franz Kafka. Then there’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from HBO’s “Veep,” who in the first couple of seasons frequently, profanely, and hilariously chafed at being stuck on the second rung of power.
Of course, most of us never make it to the top of our professions, no matter how assiduously we prepare. But we can still console ourselves that we’ve at least got that in common with plenty of former vice presidents who reached for yet never could quite grasp the brass ring, such as Gore, Quayle, Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey. (Not to mention, from across the pond, the forlorn figure of Prince Charles, exemplar of the understudy who remains perpetually stuck at No. 2.) Pence and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are doubtless hoping to add their names to the roster of earlier vice presidents who went on to win the presidency on their own, such as George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon (after an interim even longer than Biden’s).
In theater, understudies often are members of the ensemble as well as emergency backups for the star. By contrast, no one would consider vice presidents as mere members of the ensemble (notwithstanding John Nance Garner’s famous assertion that the vice presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” often expurgated to “warm spit”). So for them there can be no equivalent to the out-of-nowhere overnight success dramatized in “42nd Street,” when young Peggy Sawyer is plucked from the chorus, thrust into the lead role of a major musical, and exhorted, in the immortal words of director Julian Marsh: “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
While understudies in theater often go on for performances as needed due to a star’s illness or injury and not necessarily as permanent replacements, stage lore abounds in tales of understudies who held onto center stage once they made it there. Among the most celebrated recent examples is Sutton Foster. An unknown when she was elevated from understudy to the title role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie’' (2002), Foster went on to win a Tony Award, become one of Broadway’s leading lights, and star in a successful TV show (”Younger”).
The situation is more complicated for former vice presidents. There is no clean slate for them. They are enacting new scenes in a pre-existing script, written by their predecessors, with all the baggage that entails. To varying extents Gore, Mondale, and Humphrey all paid a political price for their associations with the presidents they served before vying for the top job themselves.
Indeed, Humphrey, an accomplished and consequential figure as a senator from Minnesota, became an object of derision on the left when he ran for president in 1968 because of his loyalty, as vice president, to LBJ’s Vietnam War policies. A few years earlier, in “Whatever Became of Hubert?,” musical satirist Tom Lehrer had mocked Humphrey’s perceived lack of independence: “Whatever became of Hubert? Has anyone heard a thing? . . . Once a fiery liberal spirit/Ah, but now when he speaks, he must clear it.”
There, in a nutshell, is the dilemma for vice presidents, a conundrum that separates them from all the other understudies who seek higher things: They may not own the spotlight, but they do share enough of it to get burned.