It's Really Not a Bad Job, Al

July 12, 1992|By PAUL LIGHT


Congratulations on your selection as Bill Clinton's running mate. Contrary to what you hear from Jay Leno, it is a very good job.

In fact, it has become the job for all reasons and all seasons. Nine of the last 18 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have been former vice presidents. Not only does the job provide ample opportunities to meet and greet the allies of future campaigns, it provides on-the-job political training and one of the nicest residences inside the Washington beltway (now with a swimming pool and putting green, courtesy of the current resident).

And if Dan Quayle can survive in the post in spite of his spelling, imagine what you will do.

Say you want to shape national policy on the environment. What better job to take, short of the presidency itself? As Walter Mondale proved under Jimmy Carter, a vice president can have a substantial impact on the president's foreign and domestic agenda. The days are over when Hubert Humphrey could describe being in office as "like standing naked in a blizzard with nothing but a match to keep you warm."

No matter how much George Bush argues he had little or no influence under Ronald Reagan, particularly with regard to Iran-contra, the office of vice president now comes equipped to automatic access to the president's ear, as well as 100 or so staffers.

Say you want to savor the spoils of victory, of Kennedy Center box seats, what better circumstance for pomp than the vice presidency? Vice presidents are only human -- they like red carpets and limousines, first-class service, bands, staff, automatic golf reservations, salutes and special aircraft.

Gone are the days when vice presidents fly in windowless cargo planes, as Spiro Agnew did under Richard Nixon. Gone are the days when the vice president was condemned to space in the Old Executive Office Building, which Mr. Mondale once called being as close to the White House action as being in Baltimore.

The vice presidency now treats its incumbents with more dignity than ever before. Vice presidents now have their own seal of office (thanks to Nelson Rockefeller's design), Air Force Two and their own song, "Hail Columbia."

Just about the only thing a vice presidency cannot do is repair a damaged reputation; it is probably the worst office in American politics from which to convince the public of one's true character or leadership qualities. The office can enhance, but it cannot fix. Thus, although Dan Quayle has survived, he has not prospered, not, at least, in convincing the public of his merits as a potential president.

Alas, as you prepare for the fall campaign, and a hoped-for transition into office, you need to remember one fact of vice presidential life: What the president giveth, the president can surely taketh away. Even though you are now guaranteed West Wing quarters just down the hall from the Oval Office, and will almost certainly have a weekly private lunch with the president, the president can still freeze you out of the policy loop. It is tougher to do today than 30 years ago, but it is still possible.

Luckily, there are ways you can make yourself more alluring as adviser and confidante. It helps to have occupied office before joining the ticket (which you have); it helps to know your issues, to have established a reputation as someone who has something to say (which you have). It also helps greatly to have a president who likes a second opinion (which you would), one who assures not only access to key decision documents but to meetings, too.

When Mr. Nixon was asked whether he had told Mr. Agnew about his dramatic trip to China, he replied, "Agnew? Agnew? Oh, of course not."

Access is an issue to discuss right now, before the campaign begins in earnest. Get some agreements on when and how the two of you will communicate and how you will share staff (Mr. Mondale salted his top people throughout the Carter administration), but focus mostly on forging a working relationship and building trust.

You need to talk to Mr. Mondale as soon as possible and consider the five rules that he followed in becoming the most effective vice president in American history:

* Never complain to the press.

One of Mr. Rockefeller's continuing problems in the Ford administration was his high profile in the media. Leaks were easily and all too often traced to his office. The more you weaken your own administration, no matter how noble the short-term goal, the more you weaken your future standing.

* Never take credit from the president.

You must constantly be mindful of who is president -- and who is not. No matter how much it hurts to be pilloried nightly as the invisible vice president, imagine the satisfaction you will derive years hence to be pilloried nightly as a very visible president.

* Fall in line.

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