VP as Training Ground

I have just finished reading Richard Neustadt's article in the June 21 New Republic, in which he makes his case that Albert Gore's nearly eight years as vice-president was an admirable preparation for service as a possible president of the United States. I disagree. I think it has hurt Gore both as a candidate and to a lesser extent as a possible president. Both handicaps can be overcome but I believe that Gore would better in both challenges if he had spent the last approximately eight years in the U.S. Senate rather than as vice-president. There is no evidence that Harry Truman would have been a better successor to Franklin Roosevelt if he had been a "new meaning" vice-president [that is, engaged in the policies of the presidency], rather than a standby one, as reported and noted by Mr. Neustadt.

I am for Albert Gore for president, but not because he has been vice-president. For years I sat next to his father on two Senate committees and saw him face up to two issues, difficult for a Tennessee senator, the Southern Manifesto and civil rights and the Vietnam War. Albert Junior campaigned for me in 1968 and I campaigned for him in Wisconsin in his 1988 campaign. In February of that year I wrote for The New Republic an advisory on categories from which presidents should not be chosen. They were in order of rejection: governors, vice-presidents, or former VPs, ministers and their sons, admirals and generals, and CEOs, and recommended the vice-presidential office be abolished.

How the office developed is not clear. The Constitutional Convention left few notes behind to explain, and Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist Papers that the office has been objected to, as "superfluous, if not mischievous."

There are at least three good reasons for abolishing the office, First: Having a vice-presidential candidate on the ticket clutters up the election campaign, offering the voters an apparent choice, when in fact only the presidential candidate, if he wins, and lives, will be in a position to direct and significantly affect policy. A ticket made up of two un-balanced persons, does not make a balanced ticket.

Second; The existence of the office puts persons who would not necessarily be the best choice, in line for the presidency. Recent examples include persons who quite probably would not have made it to the presidency, except by way of the vice-presidency, notably Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and left the country under risk of having Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle on the presidential ballot.

Third: The office not only can put undeserving and ill-qualified persons in line for the presidency, but waste the abilities of good politicians for four to eight years, years during which he or she might serve effectively in some other office. Examples include Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.

Service in the office may seriously impair the person's chances of being elected, if nominated, either because of failures on the part of his principal, or because of things that he or she did in service of a president. Lyndon Johnson inherited the Vietnam War. Hubert Humphrey, who said that he was the agent of the president, and that what the president stood for he stood for, was held responsible for the Johnson record. It is unlikely that Spiro Agnew would have been helped if he had become the Republican nominee by his service as what was labeled, "Nixon's Nixon," in his intemperate denunciation of media, students, intellectuals, politicians, and other individuals or groups. Walter Mondale certainly was not helped in his campaign of 1984 because of his association with the Carter Administration, and his description of Carter in the 1980 campaign as "honest, caring, intelligent, brilliant, committed, courageous, experienced" is almost too many adjectives for one sentence or one person to carry. It is excusable for a vice-president to go to some lengths in describing a president, since the role of a vice-president is primarily one of modifying -- somewhat in the way a tennis pro functions, not so much as to improve his clients performance, as to make them look good and feel satisfied with themselves.

George Bush, like Lyndon Johnson, accepted the vice-presidency after failing to get the presidential nomination of their respective parties. Lyndon suffered in his service to the President. Bush in trying to establish, not that he was different from Ronald Reagan, but that as the administration ran on for eight years, that he had become another Ronald Reagan, even in the extreme of adopting the president's language, in such usages as "Read my lips."

The case of Albert Gore is especially complicated. First because he must bear the ordinary burdens of the vice-presidency, in answering for the Clinton record, and also for his part in the campaign of 1996, especially as a fund-raiser, either under the direction or at the request of the president; or because he read the desires of the president, in the manner of the knights who dispatched Thomas á Becket, because they knew, or thought they knew, what King Henry wanted. Or in the manner of Admiral Poindexter, in the Oliver North affair, knowing, as he said, what the president thought, wrought what he described as " a deniable, plausible plot."

And second, because of new and different disabilities, some of which may be the consequences of the two-term limitation on presidential service, which leaves the vice-president, exposed as a most likely candidate to succeed the president, and the president politically free to conduct his administration, without full concern for succession or party continuity.

Although Gore is not on the record of surrender of loyalty as then-Senator Humphrey is in recently published transcripts of President Johnson's tape recordings, in which Humphrey is reported in saying in his bid to be named as the vice-presidential candidate: "I can assure you -- unqualifiedly, personally and with all the sincerity in my heart -- complete loyalty ... and that goes for everything. All the way. The way you want it. Right to the end of the line," he is in difficulty, as were senators Mondale and Gore arising from the fact that all three had the common experience of having made runs for the presidency which had failed. In each case the rejection was strong enough to dampen if not destroy presidential hopes. Being chosen as a running mate was in effect a political revival, followed by thanksgiving and loyalty, comparable to that which, according to Chinese legend, was expected of a person whose life had been saved, towards his savior.

I do not expect the vice-presidency to be eliminated any time soon. The last attempt was made in 1803 when the Senate failed to do so by a vote of 18 to 12. In the present, voters should be moved to eliminate all works and words performed and spoken on political matters from their consideration of a vice-president in a race for the presidency, in the manner that jurors are admonished to give no attention to some testimony.

Eugene J. McCarthy served as as a seminarian, college baseball player, teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. He ran for president but never got to be a vice-president. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).

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