In VP hunt, Kerry has time on his side

Tickets: History shows a rash running-mate pick can prove disastrous on the campaign trail and even after inauguration.

March 07, 2004|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Kerry's early clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination gives him one practical advantage: plenty of time to deliberate and make a wise choice in the matter of his running mate.

Kerry could easily choose the last man standing against him, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, as a dynamic young campaigner who would bring more vitality to the ticket and conceivably clinch a number of Southern states.

But if history is a guide, the Massachusetts senator will allow himself a period in which to stir the pot, generate public interest and not incidentally find out more about the prospective choices available to him.

Other presidential nominees have not always had that luxury. Too often in the past, they have achieved the top prize in their party so late in the game - even into the wee hours of the national nominating convention - that the choice has been rushed and sometimes disastrous.

Richard M. Nixon's selection of Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, George Bush's pick of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana and even William McKinley's choice of New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt raised ruckuses in their times.

According to participants in the process in 1968, Nixon held two meetings with party leaders on the night of his nomination as window dressing for his choice of Agnew. An internal poll had informed Nixon that he would run strongest on his own, so he picked the little-known governor of Maryland. Agnew later had to resign over his corruption indictment in connection with taking bribes in Maryland.

At the 1988 Republican National Convention, consultant Roger Ailes advised George Bush to chose Quayle, a surprise selection to demonstrate that Bush was his own man after eight years in the shadow of Ronald Reagan. It was a surprise all right. Quayle's inexperience and intellectual fumbles were frequent a source of embarrassment for Bush. He would later write that he had made a mistake.

In 1900, McKinley picked Teddy Roosevelt at the urging of New York party leaders who wanted Roosevelt out of the governor's chair, but McKinley's campaign manager, Mark Hanna, fiercely opposed it. Hanna warned McKinley, "Now it is up to you to live." After McKinley was assassinated a year later, Hanna reportedly said: "Now look! That damned cowboy is president of the United States!"

Among the Democrats, John F. Kennedy's selection of Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Franklin D. Roosevelt's picks of Henry Wallace of Iowa and Sen. Harry Truman of Missouri created divisive stirs at the party conventions.

Kennedy chose Johnson in 1960 after the No. 2 spot was shopped around to massage various party leaders, winning support for Kennedy's presidential bid but outraging labor and liberal leaders. There are various versions of how it happened, including one in which Kennedy offered Johnson the vice presidential nomination with the expectation that he would reject it. Johnson, a veteran lawmaker, had dismissed the job earlier as "a good place for a young man who needs experience."

Kennedy's brother Robert held to this version, later saying he was sent by his brother to talk Johnson out of accepting. In any event, Johnson later was credited with helping Kennedy win the Southern states that assured his election over Nixon.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt chose Wallace after a falling-out with Vice President John "Cactus Jack" Garner of Texas over Roosevelt's decision to seek a third term. Garner ran against him and Roosevelt picked his secretary of agriculture for vice president, a decision that created such a convention uproar that Roosevelt wrote a note, never sent, telling the delegates that he was not going to run himself without the man he wanted on the ticket.

The fateful choice of Truman in 1944 also came after 11th-hour pressure during which party bosses told Roosevelt that the left-leaning Wallace would cause the Democratic ticket to lose, and after the president had led former Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes to believe that he was his choice.

But the bosses squeezed Roosevelt into writing a note saying he would be pleased to run with either Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas or with Truman, in that order. According to various reconstructions of the events, one of the bosses, Democratic National Chairman Bob Hannegan - a Truman insider - persuaded Roosevelt's secretary to change the order of the names in a typewritten copy of the note, and the convention nominated Truman.

One of the worst vice presidential selection debacles occurred in 1972 over Democratic nominee George McGovern's choice under pressure of Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri. McGovern dropped Eagleton after learning that Eagleton had undergone shock treatment for a mental disorder, which was considered political poison. For days, McGovern was forced with much embarrassment to shop the nomination around among several unwilling Democrats before settling on Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law. But the McGovern campaign never recovered.

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