WASHINGTON -- In a way, Dick Cheney can probably thank not only George W. Bush for his selection to be George W. Bush's running mate. He can also thank Dan Quayle.
The fiasco that resulted in 1988 when the Texas governor's father chose Mr. Quayle to run on the GOP ticket with him was one that Mr. Bush's strategists wanted no part of. George W. said it simply from the start in declaring that the individual he would choose had to be someone "who could be president." It was a description that Mr. Quayle in 1988 seemed not to fill from the memorable moment the senior George Bush picked him -- and got himself nearly hugged to death on a New Orleans dock by his ecstatic choice.
Mr. Cheney, as a former White House chief of staff, secretary of defense and 10-year congressman, and as a man known for his level-headedness, provided the statement Governor Bush needed and wanted to make: here was a man ready from Day One to be president if necessary. The fact that Mr. Cheney brought foreign policy and national security credential that the junior Bush lacked was so much gravy.
In a more positive way also, Mr. Quayle helped George W. make the choice of Mr. Cheney. As vice president, Mr. Quayle, like the senior Mr. Bush before him served, his president with utmost loyalty, never stepping out of line or saying anything, on or off the record, that would contradict his boss. George W. repeatedly emphasized the importance of his having a No. 2 who would be completely loyal, and Mr. Cheney filled that bill, too.
Karl Rove, the governor's chief political strategist, discussing the vice-presidential selection process in advance of the announcement about Mr. Cheney, pointedly recalled how President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, John Nance Garner of Texas -- a reluctant choice who gave up being speaker of the House -- openly broke with FDR over his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court with additional justices. Garner not only opposed FDR's bid for a third term but ran against him.
The trouble-plagued Quayle experience was never anywhere near that destructive, but nevertheless has had an impact on vice-presidential selection in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party. In 1992, according to Dee Dee Myers, then Democratic nominee Bill Clinton's press secretary, Mr. Clinton's "overriding concern was, he was not going to be a man who picked [a] Dan Quayle." To Mr. Clinton, she said, "it was an irresponsible decision on Bush's part to choose this man who (in Mr. Clinton's mind) was clearly incapable of being president."
Mr. Clinton, in introducing his own choice in 1992, Al Gore, said: "The man standing beside me today has what it takes to lead the nation from the day we take office."
Mr. Bush, in introducing Mr. Cheney, used almost the same words, saying he picked Mr. Cheney "because he is, without a doubt, fully capable of being president of the United States."
Quite aside from considering the cautionary memories of the Quayle experience, however, Mr. Bush in choosing Mr. Cheney demonstrated a seriousness about the vice presidency that merits praise -- though probably not praise that will be rewarded at the ballot box in November. Although the selection of a running mate provides the most specific measure of a presidential nominee's judgment available before the election, it has seldom, if ever, been the sort of issue that Americans consider much in deciding how to vote.
But they ought to, when you remember that 14 vice presidents have become president by one route or another, including five of the last 10 presidents. Indeed, the vice presidency has come a very long way in public esteem since the first veep, John Adams, wrote his wife Abigail that "my country in its wisdom has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
Starting with Jimmy Carter's expanded use of his vice president, Walter Mondale, every president since then has given his No. 2 more responsibilities and access to his own inner circle --- even Mr. Quayle under the senior Mr. Bush. This development warrants more voter interest in the choice of running mates -- and more credit to the presidential nominees who make worthy ones.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).