The best vice presidency may be no vice presidency

ROGER SIMON

October 14, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

ATLANTA -- Do we really have to have a vice president? After sitting through the vice presidential debate last night, I'm not sure America wouldn't be better off without one.

The audience for the debate at Georgia Tech was told it should not laugh. But nobody told the journalists that. And so the press room, where hundreds of reporters sat and watched the debate on TV screens, was constantly rocked by guffaws.

And can you blame us? About ten minutes into the debate I wanted to wrap my arms around James Stockdale and lead him off the stage so he wouldn't have to be exposed to any more of this.

Al Gore and Dan Quayle were like two brothers who couldn't behave in the back seat of the car. If the debate had gone on for five more minutes, I think Gore might have put Quayle in a headlock and given him a noogie.

"You can say it all you want but it doesn't make it true!" Gore shouted at Quayle at one point.

To which I expected Quayle to say: "Bounces off rubber, but sticks to glue!"

And Stockdale? Well, Stockdale was like the confused uncle in the front seat who was wondering why he had been awakened before it was time to stop for lunch.

Stockdale is not dumb. He is an expert on Greek stoic philosophy. He is able to quote Epicetus with aplomb. What he is not is a TV performer and that is what it takes these days to get to the White House.

So Gore and Quayle whaled away at each other with all the good lines and all the good hand gestures while Stockdale gazed at them with a mixture of surprise and horror on his face.

At one point, Dan Quayle said: "Truth and integrity are prerequisites for being president of the United States."

Which made me wonder what country he's been living in for the last few decades.

But if he's correct, then why throughout the debate were Quayle aides and Gore aides racing up and down the aisles of the press room handing out documents, literally still warm from the photocopiers, proving -- absolutely proving! -- that Bush and Clinton were liars?

Near the end of the debate, Stockdale had to say to the moderator: "I don't have my hearing aid turned on, tell me again."

And maybe turning off one's hearing aid was the proper response to what the other two candidates were saying.

The way they tore at each other, like two terriers with their teeth sunk in each other's rumps, you'd think it was a real job they were competing for.

In fact, being vice president is a heartbeat away from having something to do for a living.

Quayle and Gore want the job not because they want to go to a lot of state funerals ("You die; I fly," is how George Bush once described his eight years as vice president) but because they want to run for president in 1996.

So how much do vice presidential debates matter to who wins and who loses come Election Day? Examine the record:

Four years ago, in the worst gaffe in debate history, Dan Quayle made the mistake of comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. And Lloyd Bentsen, delvering a pre-scripted line, tore his head off with the "and you're no Jack Kennedy!" retort.

But what happened? Quayle got the job and Bentsen didn't. So maybe there is nothing you can do in a debate that disqualifies you for the presidency. But that doesn't mean Gore and Quayle didn't try.

If I got the thrust of their comments correctly, Bill Clinton is a pathological liar and George Bush will take all the money away from the middle class and give it to the rich.

And Ross Perot? Well, in the unlikely event that Perot becomes president, he would have as his second in command a man who believes you can learn everything you need to know about running this country from inside a North Vietnamese prison camp.

Maybe he's right. But Stockdale didn't build much of a case for it last night.

Besides, Stockdale is simply too decent a man to send to Washington. He's been punished enough in his life.

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