| Washington Examiner
Joe Biden's pledge to choose a woman as his running mate, and his consideration of several black female officeholders for the role, has spurred considerable chatter about diversity in the nation's second-highest office.
"Historic" is a term often associated with the search by Biden, himself a former vice president, after 36 years as a Delaware senator. But the United States has already elected its first minority vice president, Republican Charles Curtis, who had significant Native American ancestry. Curtis was vice president under President Herbert Hoover for four years, much of it consumed by the nation's darkest economic times, the Great Depression. Curtis, Senate majority leader when tapped by Hoover for the Republican ticket, was also the first person with acknowledged non-European ancestry to reach the highest ranks of the federal government.
Born in the Kansas Territory in 1860, Curtis spent much of his formative years on an Indian reservation. His mother, Ellen Pappan Curtis, who shared Kansa, Osage, and Potawatomi heritage, died when he was 3 years old. He then moved in with his maternal grandmother on the Kaw Indian Reservation, where his first language was that of the tribe. He later learned English and French.
His father, Oren Arms Curtis, had Anglo heritage. Historians are divided about whether Charles Curtis was one-eighth or three-eighths native Indian, although he remained a member of the Kaw Tribe his entire life.
"He’d like to say 'I’m three-eighths Caw Indian and 100% American,'" University of Kansas historian David Hamilton told the Washington Examiner. "And that Indian heritage was important to him as a Kansas politician."
The Kansas frontier remained bloody during Curtis's time on the Kaw reservation, so much so that constant conflicts between warring tribes forced him to live with his paternal grandfather in Topeka. The move was hard on the young Curtis, who spoke fondly about his own "bows and arrows." At the age of 8, he was tasked with informing the state government about a Cheyenne Indian raid. As Curtis grew older in Topeka, so did his fondness for politics. After graduating law school, the "Indian jockey," his nickname at the time, won an election for Shawnee County attorney in 1884. Eight years later, he was elected to Congress as a Republican in an upset election that broke the Democratic stronghold in his district.
Curtis was appointed a senator in 1907 and stayed in office through 1913. The next year, he won Kansas's other Senate seat, just after the 17th Amendment created the direct election of senators.
Curtis rose to majority whip after Republicans won a Senate majority in 1918. He led opposition to the agenda of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. In the latter half of the 1920s, a time of Republican dominance in national politics, Curtis became Senate majority leader.
"He was the first Republican to have the title as majority leader in Congress. It was only in the '20s that both parties began to formally refer to their leader as the 'majority leader' or 'minority leader,'" Hamilton said. "He’s the classic example of a nonideological legislator. He played some role in Indian affairs issues when he was in Congress."
Broadly considered one of the most likable members of the Senate, Curtis's ambitions turned toward the White House following President Calvin Coolidge's decision in 1927 to forgo another term. Curtis's run for the Republican Party's presidential nomination the following year was fairly disastrous. At the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Curtis earned just 64 votes on the ballot compared to 837 for Herbert Hoover, commerce secretary in GOP administrations for much of the 1920s.
The party still gave Curtis the running mate slot, though he had long been a Hoover rival. Their ticket won the 1928 election in a landslide, with 58.2% of the vote and carrying 40 states.
Despite the historic nature of Curtis's vice presidency, most of the country thought little of his Indian background.
"Had Al Smith, who was Catholic and the first Catholic on a presidential ticket, beaten Hoover, that would have been more significant at the time," said Hamilton, referring to the 1928 Democratic nominee, who was governor of New York. "These religious divisions carried much more weight back then. Race was less consequential then because there weren't any real efforts to address civil rights or things of that nature. It doesn’t divide the nation as it does today."
The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression tanked Curtis's reputation with the public. His efforts at easing concerns, such as predicting that "good times are around the corner" in 1930, were routinely mocked in the press as well.
He later lost his renomination bid for vice president in 1932 on the first bid, although won the spot in a runoff even after losing the confidence of Hoover, who had grown increasingly irritated by what he saw as fecklessness and incompetence. Hoover and Curtis lost the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner in a landslide, with the Democratic candidates winning 57% of the vote. Curtis then retired from public office, opening a law practice in Washington. Three years after his loss for a second term, he became chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and worked to get his party back to a majority in the upper chamber in 1936. He died from a heart attack a year before that election and was buried in his native Kansas. READ MORE