WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's plan for choosing a vice presidential nominee is about as subtle as a runaway gravel truck. But it does have the virtue of calling attention to the best and worst methods used in making that selection.
The worst -- at least from the Democratic perspective -- has to be President Bush's decision to pluck the name of Dan Quayle out of the air in New Orleans four years ago. And although it is the Democrats who talk most about it, there are many Republicans who privately still shake their heads and wonder how that one happened.
The best may have been the method the nominee-apparent, Jimmy Carter, used in 1976. He designated Charles Kirbo, an Atlanta lawyer and confidant, to canvass dozens of party leaders and others with presumed inside knowledge about the qualifications, personalities and backgrounds of a dozen or more prospective choices.
Clinton, the nominee-apparent this time, is doing something similar by establishing a search committee of Warren Christopher, a highly respected Washington lawyer who served in the last three Democratic administrations; former Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont; and Vernon Jordan, a former head of the Urban League and now an influential Washington attorney. In the crassest terms, Clinton has managed to score something of a political hat trick: a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a Jew, a woman and a black, all in just three people.
There is probably far more window dressing in this operation than was the case with Carter, who at the time he was nominated had served a single term as governor of Georgia and lacked firsthand knowledge of even obvious possibilities, including the one finally chosen, then Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota. By contrast, Clinton has been governor of Arkansas for 11 of the past 13 years and a player on the national stage most of that time, so it is fair to say he knows the possible nominees pretty well.
There are, however, sound political reasons for Clinton to use this search committee approach, quite aside from the contrast it provides with the almost obsessively secretive procedure that candidate Bush followed.
The most obvious political imperative for Clinton is to draw some attention to a decision he recognizes will tell voters more about him than anything else he will have done up to that point. What he is saying with the Christopher committee is that this is serious business indeed, although no one in politics doubts the final choice will be a personal one.
Secondly, the committee plan provides a layer of insulation between the candidate himself and the advocates of those who would like to be vice president. It establishes a mechanism for those advocates that provides at least the appearance of a level playing field.
This may turn out to be especially important in dealing with Jesse Jackson, who already has sent clear signals that he wants to be seriously considered and even seemed at one point to be threatening to retaliate if he were ignored. The fact is, of course, that there is virtually no chance of Jackson's being chosen for the ticket by a candidate who, first, is directing his campaign at the great white middle class and, second, already has connections of his own to the black community. But Jackson remains a charismatic leader, and it is easy to imagine large numbers of blacks arriving in New York for the convention July 13 believing he has a serious chance to be chosen, unless, of course, Clinton makes the decision before the convention.
vTC Clinton advisers insist the timing is far less important than the candidate's being "comfortable" with the choice and confident he has chosen the running mate "best qualified" for the presidency. That is what they always say -- even Bush in 1988.
Barring some disaster, the decision isn't likely to make much difference in the outcome of the campaign against Bush and Ross Perot. For all the furor caused by the Quayle selection in 1988, there was never any evidence in the opinion polls or the election returns that it made any difference in the outcome of the election.
But if it is true that voters form their view of presidential candidates in part on the way they make this decision, the Clinton formula makes sense.