Steppingstone to the White House? Scrutinizing vice presidential choices

February 23, 1992|By Francis E. Rourke

CRAPSHOOT: ROLLING THE DICE

ON THE VICE PRESIDENCY.

Jules Witcover.

Crown.

450 pages. $25. Cynics might suggest that life is too short to read a whole book about a political office with so little real power as the American vice presidency. Jules Witcover's "Crapshoot" could change their minds. It is a highly entertaining look at the trials and tribulations of all the men who found themselves in that lofty but far from exalted post.

No review can do justice to the colorful account Mr. Witcover -- a political columnist for The Baltimore Sun -- presents of the political intrigue that has surrounded so many contests for the vice presidential nomination, especially the struggle that occurred with the Democrats in 1944, when party leaders successfully conspired to replace Henry A. Wallace with Harry S Truman as the nominee.

Earlier in American history, as Mr. Witcover shows, the office has roughly the same attraction for an ambitious politician as solitary confinement. At best, a vice president might go unnoticed. At worst, he might find himself an object of universal derision.

The derision remains, but other things have changed. Nowadays, vice presidents have more to do, although to be sure many of the new duties are ceremonial, much like the constitutional obligation to preside over the Senate. But at least one vice president, Walter Mondale, played a major role in governance during the Carter administration.

Much more important, however, is a second change. Vice presidents today easily vault to the top in the quest for their party's presidential nomination. This was unthinkable in the 19th century, when, as Mr. Witcover notes, "the office was a certifiable dead end."

If nothing else, the politicians who have held the office in recent years have been certifiably alive. For some, the vice presidency has brought political resurrection, opening the way to a presidential nomination they were previously denied and might not otherwise have attained. This was true of Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Neither cut much ice with the voters when they ran for the Democratic nomination against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

In one respect alone has time stood still for the vice presidency. Vice presidents still are selected with little or no attempt to gauge their real qualifications to be president. It is settled custom to allow presidential candidates to choose their own running mates, using whatever standards they hit upon.

This system sometimes has served the country well: Witness Jimmy Carter's choice of Mr. Mondale in 1976, or Gerald Ford's selection of Nelson Rockefeller in 1974. Both of these vice presidents were clearly well qualified for the White House by virtue of intelligence, experience and temperament.

On the other side of the ledger were the astonishing choices of Spiro T. Agnew in 1968 and Dan Quayle in 1988. A common element in each of these cases appears to have been the minimalist view of the president making the decision -- that neither would do him any harm at the polls.

This book leaves us with both a question and a challenge. The question is a simple one: Why have vice presidents become such prime candidates for the presidency? One answer may be that the office provides a candidate with credibility as an international leader.

Here, as elsewhere, television has reshaped American politics. It has allowed vice presidents to be seen by the public playing highly visible roles that have a presidential aura about them. Other candidates would kill for the advantages the office affords in this age of visuals.

But vice presidential nominees for the White House seem to impress their political parties more easily than they do the public. It has proven more simple in modern times for vice presidents to gain the nomination than to win a presidential election. Vice presidents seeking the presidency lost in 1960 (Richard Nixon) and 1968 (Humphrey), and won only in 1988 (George Bush). A former vice president won in 1968 (Mr. Nixon) but lost in 1984 (Mr. Mondale).

The challenge Mr. Witcover presents is to design an arrangement for selecting candidates that is better than the flawed system of letting presidential nominees choose their own running mates. But the alternative procedures suggested have their own problems.

But in a democracy, the voters are not powerless. If they imposed heavy penalties at the polls on presidential candidates who made flagrantly bad choices, the country might get better vice presidents. Unfortunately, the elections of 1968 and 1988 do not suggest that the day is near when this will happen.

Dr. Rourke is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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