MINNEAPOLIS -- Had "Cactus Jack" Garner, FDR's first vice president, been able to watch Al Gore campaigning with Bill Clinton on their latest bus tour that wound up here, he might well have reconsidered his famous evaluation of the job he held for eight years.
Garner avowed that the vice presidency was "not worth a bucket of warm spit," and some insist that this was the sanitized version. In any event, the wizened old Texan was only expressing in his earthy way what many vice presidents -- and ordinary citizens as well -- have felt over the years.
Seldom if ever, however, has a presidential nominee so willingly shared the spotlight with his running mate as Clinton and Gore campaign together. If they are elected and Clinton, as he promises, takes the same attitude toward his vice president in office, Gore could be the most visible No. 2 man in history.
As the pair motored up the Mississippi Valley from East St. Louis to Minneapolis, they resembled an old vaudeville team on tour. At each stop, Gore would warm up the crowd with rousing political cheerleading that often stole the show before introducing Clinton.
He would repeatedly refer to "the Clinton-Gore team," and Clinton for his part would talk about what "Al and I" intended to do when they took office. In Q-and-A sessions, Clinton would always lead off, but Gore often would step up to add his two cents, either at Clinton's invitation or on his own hook.
At the tour's windup rally here, Clinton diplomatically offered that Gore would be "the best vice president who didn't come from Minnesota" -- in deference to Hubert Humphrey, whose statue looked down on the scene, and Walter Mondale, who stood approvingly by. Mondale said later that as Jimmy Carter's running mate, he had never campaigned with Carter in quite this intense fashion.
There is, to be sure, good political reason for Clinton to put Gore front and center, and his name is Dan Quayle. The ridicule that haunts the Republican vice president gives Clinton an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast between George Bush's first key decision as his party's presidential nominee in 1988 and his own this year.
Although Clinton's choice of Gore was widely heralded when he made it, it remained for Gore to perform as a candidate to validate Clinton's judgment. So far he has done so beyond expectations -- especially those of all who remembered his stilted, uninspiring performance as a failed presidential candidate in 1988.
In advance of selecting Gore, Clinton said what all presidential nominees say about their ticket partner that the first consideration would be whether he or she was qualified to be president. Once Bush picked Quayle, he said little more about that, but Clinton continues to say it regarding Gore, without fear that the comment will evoke guffaws, as such a statement about Quayle by Bush would assuredly do.
When the Arkansas governor picked another Southerner less than two years his junior, Clinton told a crowd in Baldwin, Wis., "a lot of people said, 'This is a nutty decision.'" But, he went on, "It was the first decision I made and I made it without regard to politics." Compared with Bush's choice of Quayle, he said, "I think it recommends me on the kind of president I'll be."
The idea of campaigning with his running mate has proved to be a political windfall and a gambit not likely to be emulated by Bush and Quayle. l While Clinton staffers say the Bill and Al road show will have other performances between now and November, it's likely that as time grows shorter, Gore will take up the more traditional role assigned Quayle. That is, he will visit smaller states and towns while the presidential nominee concentrates on the major electoral-vote targets.
But this early exposure as an up-front partner on the Democratic team should increase Gore's identification with voters and make him a bigger attraction when he is out on his own. Quayle is already, if for other reasons, a prime drawing card. The expected debate between them could be one of the campaign's most-watched television events, especially in light of Quayle's memorable 1988 performance, when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen reminded him that "you're no Jack Kennedy."