Presidential could-be's

Veep: Every four years, the world beats a path to folks like Steve Tally, who know an awful lot of stuff about the men who've been No. 2 on the ticket.

July 26, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Steve Tally calls himself a popular historian. Every four years he becomes a really popular historian.

For Tally has an interesting specialty - the history of the vice presidency in the United States. He's even written a book about it, "Bland Ambition," published in 1992.

Want to talk vice presidents? Then Tally's your man. And, for a brief moment in time, journalists do want to talk about vice presidents. Right now, for example.

"I just got off the phone with CNN," Tally said yesterday, by telephone from his office at Purdue University. A science writer by trade, he teaches journalism at the West Lafayette, Ind., university. He's also in the final stages of completing his second book, "Almost America," essays about crucial decisions in U.S. history. But he's not, he hastens to add, a "vice presidential scholar," although the Los Angeles Times dubbed him that earlier this month.

What he was, back in the early 1990s, was a guy with a political humor column who couldn't find much information about vice presidents.

He was stunned to learn that one vice president had been charged with treason, for example. (John Cabell Breckenridge, vice president under James Buchanan, was in the U.S. Senate when his support of the Confederacy earned his expulsion from that body).

Tally also discovered two men turned the job down, out-right, after being nominated from the convention floor. (Silas Wright, a Democrat, declined to run with James Polk in 1844, while Frank Lowden, a Republican, said no to Calvin Coolidge in 1924.)

The more Tally learned about the office, the more interested he became. So, when MSNBC or USA Today needs to talk about running mates, Tally gets the call.

"It's a big year for us vice presidential experts," he jokes. "In 1996, we only had the one choice, Dole picking Kemp. This year, there are two. My 15 minutes might go up to 18 minutes of fame."

So who are the other chroniclers of the vice presidency? Actually, Tally says, he can't think of any. (Editor's note: The author of this piece will be disinherited if she doesn't mention that The Sun once had a columnist who also is something of an expert when it comes to vice presidential candidates, having written books about Spiro Agnew and Edmund Muskie. Theo Lippman Jr. has even considered visiting Uvalde, Texas, where there's a museum dedicated to John Nance Garner, a vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who once told Lyndon Johnson the office wasn't worth "a pitcher of warm spit." Or he might have said something ruder.)

Tally doesn't mention Garner, but he has a real fondness for Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, who coined the phrase: "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar."

Marshall was from Indiana, which is perhaps best-known for giving the world Dan Quayle. But Indiana is "the mother of vice presidents," asserts the Indiana-born-and-bred Tally, second only to New York in veep production. (New York had 11, Indiana 5.)

Some reporters try to get Tally to handicap current picks, but he avoids political discussions in favor of historical ones. He will comment, however, on why the office is so, well, mockable.

"It's always been the laughingstock of American politics," he says. "First of all, there's the old adage that idle hands are the devil's workshop. Even our current vice president has held true to that one. I think the job appeals to people who are dull technocrats, men of little vision ... [But] if men could step back and laugh along with the rest of the country, they had marvelous tenures as vice presidents and were much loved."

OK, so did George Bush really say: "You die, I fly"? Yes, Tally says, but he was riffing on an earlier quip by Nelson Rockefeller. Asked by the press what Gerald Ford used him for, Rockefeller replied: "It depends on who dies."

So who is the archetype of the American vice president, the man who best epitomizes the office, with its limitations and pitfalls?

"You know who I really think? Dick Cheney," Tally says without a moment of hesitation. Then again, it's his second phone call of the morning, his fourth in two days.

"He fits the mold perfectly - someone who's been a party loyalist for many years, not a threat to those who would be president. Always been around, well-respected, well-liked, kind of dull. Never mentioned for the job himself - he's absolutely perfect in the pantheon of vice presidents!"

Perfect in the pantheon of vice presidents - now that kind of alliteration is the mark of a real pro.

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