Why Not Just Draw Straws?

May 08, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. CO. ERNEST B. FURGURSON — Washington. -- In 202 years, our country has had 41 presidents. Eight have died in office; four of those were assassinated. Assassination attempts were made on five others.

In this century alone, four sitting presidents have died, and one BTC has resigned in the face of impeachment. Four others have had (( life-threatening illness -- not counting President Bush, whose atrial fibrillation is, we all hope, no more than a warning sign.

For these reasons, regardless of who holds the office at this moment, the vice presidency of the United States demands to be treated as more than a joke, and choosing him or her must be a more deliberate process than indulging whatever strange whim overtakes a presidential candidate at the crucial moment.

A glance at those who have automatically stepped into the White House from the No. 2 job demonstrates again that we have been a blessed nation. Before the Civil War, John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison and is highly regarded in history; Millard Fillmore succeeded Zachary Taylor and became a trivia item.

After Andrew Johnson succeeded Abraham Lincoln, he had to (( fight off impeachment, but that was instigated by his political enemies' vindictiveness more than his own shortcomings. Chester A. Arthur took over from James Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt from William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge from Warren Harding. As I say, we were blessed -- none of them brought us disaster.

Modern times are more controversial. After Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, while he was in office, he was reviled by many. So was Lyndon Johnson, though if there had been no Vietnam he would rank among the most effective presidents.

Our luck held when Spiro Agnew copped a plea and left office the year before Richard Nixon effectively did the same thing; instead of Mr. Agnew, we got Jerry Ford instead.

We had a close call when both pistols aimed by a would-be assassin of Andrew Jackson misfired in 1835; we would have gotten Martin Van Buren for president two years sooner. The country would have been thrown into a constitutional swivet if Giusepe Zangara had succeeded in assassinating Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president but not yet sworn in, in early 1933. Zangara's bullet struck and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead.

Had the Puerto Rican nationalists who tried to shoot Harry Truman at Blair House in 1950 succeeded, we would be more familiar with his vice president, the amiable Alben Barkley. Had ''Squeaky'' Fromme known that before firing her .45 Colt automatic at President Ford in 1975, she needed to work the slide to chamber a round, we would have memories of President Nelson Rockefeller.

If John Hinckley Jr., had fired a heavier-caliber pistol at Ronald Reagan in 1981, George Bush would have moved into the White House a decade sooner; if Dwight Eisenhower had not been handled carefully after his heart attack in 1955, we would have had Dick Nixon as president 14 years sooner . . .

If, if, if -- if presidential nominees had always chosen their running mates for stature, in sincere belief that they were they next-best person to run the country, Americans would not have had to hold their breath so fearfully each time a president stopped a bullet or experienced a heart flutter.

Instead, vice presidents have been chosen repeatedly to balance a ticket geographically or ideologically. Johnson was picked by Kennedy for that reason, with the bonus that he was a legislative wizard. Congressman Bill Miller was picked by Barry Goldwater because ''he drives Lyndon Johnson nuts.'' Ted Agnew was picked by Mr. Nixon because he had talked tough to black leaders in Baltimore.

George Bush was picked by Mr. Reagan because he had run him a close race for the nomination, but there was a bonus there, too, in Mr. Bush's extensive government service. Based on that resume, Mr. Reagan could make a reasonable case that his vice president was the man best qualified to take over in emergency.

That made it all the more astonishing when Mr. Bush, who had prepared himself so thoroughly for the office, ignored solid experience as a factor when he casually chose his own vice president. The most credible reason heard was that he wanted someone who would not overshadow him during the campaign.

Both our country and our current president have been lucky, and we pray that his luck will run on. But as a nation, we should not have to count on luck and prayers.

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