Stand­ing by for the booby prize

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

No­body has yet dis­cov­ered what to do with the vice pres­i­dent. His only real du­ties are to at­tend fu­ner­als in far-off places abroad and to stand by for the only funeral he could en­joy. This isn’t enough for an am­bi­tious pol.

The first vice pres­i­dent was fa­mously con­temp­tu­ous of the of­fice. “My coun­try has in its wis­dom con­trived for me the most in­signif­i­cant of­fice ever the in­ven­tion of man con­trived or his imag­i­na­tion con­ceived,” John Adams said of it, and John Nance Gar­ner, FDR’s first vice pres­i­dent, echoed that with slightly more el­e­gance, here san­i­tized: The of­fice isn’t worth “a pitcher of warm spit.”

Nev­er­the­less, when two gov­er­nors, Char­lie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jin­dal of Louisiana, and one for­mer gov­er­nor, Mitt Rom­ney of Mas­sachusetts, were in­vited to join John McCain for an au­di­tion and a bar­be­cue at his ranch in Ari­zona over the Me­mo­rial Day week­end, their bags were al­ready packed, stuffed with ex­tra socks and enough clean un­der­wear to last the full three days.

The only other use for the of­fice is to give pun­dits and hang­ers-on an op­por­tu­nity to boldly spec­u­late, wildly, as if they had the fog­gi­est idea of what’s go­ing on in the heads of the nom­i­nees. It’s harm­less fun that only the cred­u­lous treat as if it means some­thing.

“The pol­i­tics of pick­ing a vice pres­i­dent are con­stantly over­stated,” Richard Moe, who was Wal­ter Mon­dale’s chief of staff, told Al Hunt of Bloomberg News. “But the de­ci­sion does tell us much about how that per­son will tend to gov­ern and what his val­ues are.”

This doesn’t ex­plain why pres­i­dents have been so ea­ger to dis­card their vice pres­i­dents once in of­fice. Sev­eral mod­ern pres­i­dents have not hu­mil­i­ated their vice pres­i­dents in pub­lic, and sev­eral mod­ern vice pres­i­dents have even had use­ful things to do be­tween for­eign fu­ner­als. But usu­ally not. Harry S. Tru­man, the third of FDR’s vice pres­i­dents, rarely saw the pres­i­dent, even though FDR was se­ri­ously ill when Mr. Tru­man joined the ticket in the midst of war in 1944. When he be­came pres­i­dent in April the next year, he didn’t even know the atomic bomb was in the works. He had to make the de­ci­sion to drop it on Hiroshima four months later.

Pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees try to bal­ance the ticket, but bal­anc­ing the ticket doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Wal­ter Mon­dale cor­rected sex­ual im­bal­ance with Geral­dine Fer­raro in 1984, but the Democrats were doomed that year, any­way. Ge­og­ra­phy was once im­por­tant, but Bill Clin­ton took a run­ning mate from an ad­join­ing state. Ron­ald Rea­gan chose Ge­orge H.W. Bush for ide­o­log­i­cal bal­ance, only to es­tab­lish a brief dy­nasty. Barack Obama will al­most cer­tainly choose a white man, un­less he chal­lenges two prece­dents by tak­ing a white wo­man. He could in­vite Hil­lary Clin­ton to join him in the ex­pec­ta­tion that she will refuse, but he has to be wary. She might not.

An Obama-Hil­lary ticket would be ev­ery­body’s worst night­mare, be­gin­ning with the rit­ual pho­to­graph of the run­ning mates and their spouses on stage on the fi­nal night at the na­tional con­ven­tion, where Jimmy Carter chased a re­luc­tant and be­mused Teddy Kennedy around the podium, beg­ging like a puppy for his hand. The spec­ta­cle of Barack, Michelle, Hil­lary and Bill stand­ing with arms up­raised would frighten the mil­lions, hardly the sec­ond oc­ca­sion for Michelle Obama to feel pride in her coun­try.

John F. Kennedy sur­vived a pres­i­den­tial pri­mary cam­paign in 1960 rougher and tougher than the one this year; we were a tougher coun­try then, rarely need­ing a mommy, a lawyer or a grief coun­selor when some­one said some­thing rude to us. He in­vited Lyn­don B. John­son to join him in the full ex­pec­ta­tion that he would say no. But LBJ, who had barely sur­vived a heart at­tack, weary of the Se­nate and look­ing for some­thing en­abling him to sleep late when he felt like it, said yes. JFK tried to re­scind the in­vi­ta­tion, but couldn’t.

He was the rare run­ning mate who ac­tu­ally made a dif­fer­ence. When he dis­patched Lady Bird to make a whis­tle-stop tour through the Con­fed­er­acy to re­as­sure South­ern­ers not ea­ger to em­brace a Mas­sachusetts Yan­kee, she as­sured a Kennedy vic­tory. In re­turn, the new pres­i­dent ef­fec­tively told him he didn’t have to drop dead. Just get lost. John Adams wouldn’t have been sur­prised.

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor emer­i­tus of The Times.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.