WASHINGTON - The decision of Sen. John Kerry to start now on his search for a running mate bodes well for the most important call that must be made by any presumptive presidential nominee.
It's true that the vice presidency in the past has often been dismissed as insignificant or worse. Franklin D. Roosevelt's two-term veep demeaned it (in a sanitized version) as "not worth a bucket of warm spit." But it has been the surest stepping-stone to the presidency, especially in modern times.
Of the 42 men who have held the presidency, 14 have first served as vice president. Eight have been elevated by the death of the president, four by their own election and one (Gerald R. Ford) by resignation of the president. In eight of the last 10 national elections, one or both major party presidential nominees had first served as the No. 2 man.
In the early years, major political leaders used to shun the office, leaving it to such forgettable figures as Daniel D. Tompkins, George M. Dallas and Henry Wilson. Well into the 20th century, picking a presidential running mate more often than not was an afterthought, or the functional equivalent of a gold watch for long party service.
If any president can be credited with first taking a significant step toward giving the vice presidential selection the deliberation it deserved, it probably was Jimmy Carter in 1976. He undertook a painstaking search for his running mate, first having his staff draw up a list of more than 300 prominent Democratic officeholders, then weaning it down to about two dozen.
His chief political strategist, Hamilton Jordan, advised him in a memo that his decision would be the first "of presidential magnitude that you will make." Mr. Jordan further observed that "the best politics is to select a person who is accurately perceived by the American people as being qualified and able to serve as president if that became necessary."
The list finally was narrowed to seven men, all of whom were interviewed, first by two trusted Carter friends and then by the nominee himself. Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, who had prepped for his interview and had given Mr. Carter his ideas on how the vice presidency could most constructively be used, won the job.
The careful Carter screening came on the heels of the 1972 fiasco in which Democrat George McGovern made a late-hour choice of Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, who belatedly admitted to having undergone shock treatment for a mental disorder. He was dropped from the ticket and replaced by Sargent Shriver, and the ticket lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.
With that experience as background, Mr. Carter asked prospects in a questionnaire whether they had "anything in your personal life or that of a near relative which you feel, if known, may be of embarrassment" in the campaign.
The next two presidents, Republicans Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, also had lists of names drawn up and vetted, but not on the scale undertaken by Mr. Carter. Mr. Reagan in 1980 accepted Mr. Bush only after a bizarre flirtation with former President Ford. Mr. Bush in 1988 pulled a surprise on his own staff by picking Dan Quayle, triggering an intensive vetting by the news media, especially about how he got into the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War.
In 1992, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton adopted much of the Carter process in settling on Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who as the presidential nominee in 2000 then followed suit. Also in 2000, when George W. Bush had old Bush family associate Dick Cheney undertake the search, the junior Mr. Bush was so impressed with how he went about it that he chose the searcher.
No doubt the man Mr. Kerry has named to head his VP search, former Mondale aide James Johnson, will have this history in mind as he vets the leading prospects to be the Massachusetts senator's running mate. But, as usual, the choice then will be Mr. Kerry's to make, whether wisely or by whim.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.