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Historians Weigh Role of Vice-Presidential Candidates

July 4, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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As the race between presumptive nominees Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama continues to heat up, historians look to past races to weigh the advantages and disadvantages brought to a national ticket by a vice presidential candidate.

GWEN IFILL: It is the Fourth of July, and the political world is taking a breath. But behind the scenes, each candidate is hard at work on the most important decision he may make this year: the choice of a running mate.

But how important is a vice president? Originally, the candidate who came in second simply got the job, but now Vice President Cheney is arguably the most powerful No. 2 ever.

The road from there to here provides fodder this Independence Day for our panel of historians, Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

Everyone is involved, Richard Norton Smith, in the veepstakes, deciding who the next vice president is going to be. Was this always such an important job?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: No. The fact is that, for most of our history — for example, the Constitution only provides two functions for a vice president. One is to preside over the Senate, and the other is to be ready to succeed to a president if called upon.

Really, beginning in the 1950s, the advent of the jet plane and television, and the fact that Dwight Eisenhower was the oldest president up until that time, willing to entrust a lot of functions to Richard Nixon, who, because of the Checkers speech in the ’52 campaign and television, came into office, unlike other vice presidents, with a constituency of his own.

So it really began in the 1950s to become not quite a deputy president, but certainly not the inconsequential office that John Adams had portrayed it as.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit about that, Peniel Joseph. What was the original envisioning of what this office was supposed to be?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, originally, in terms of the framers, the vice presidency comes into play with the person who actually is second for president. So when we think about the way in which the framers originally conveyed it, John Adams actually runs for president, and so does George Washington. He comes in second.

By the time Thomas Jefferson runs for president, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson are tied, and there’s really a constitutional crisis. And the Twelfth Amendment is going to be put into place to make sure that there are separate ballots for president and vice president.

GWEN IFILL: So it really didn’t matter that much who was vice president those first couple of terms, or did it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Not a lot. But, you know, Thomas Jefferson was vice president under John Adams after 1797. They disagreed on almost every issue, and Jefferson was so angry that he decamped Philadelphia, where the capitol was, and went back to his house at Monticello, Va., for most of that term.

So you could say, yes, it didn’t matter much, because, you know, people didn’t say that the republic grinds to a halt because the vice president is not here, but it highlighted the problem that you have if you’ve got a vice president who disagrees a lot with the guy who’s president.

GWEN IFILL: And after all, he was still a heartbeat away, whether he was powerful in that role or not.


Best VP choice ever?

GWEN IFILL: Who was the best at doing this, the vice presidency?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, I would say -- maybe it's counterintuitive, but I think that the model vice president, at least in recent times, is Walter Mondale.

Walter Mondale had vivid recollections of the humiliations that Hubert Humphrey, his fellow Minnesotan, had experienced at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. And when Mondale was being considered for the vice presidency in '76 by Jimmy Carter, he made it clear he didn't want history to repeat himself in a number of ways.

Vice presidents up until that time had been sort of siphoned off. They'd been given the space program or this function or that function, almost make-work of the president.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: ... programs that might fail.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Mondale said, "I don't want that. I want to be a deputy president. I want to be in the meetings. I want to be part of the program." And I think it says a lot about Jimmy Carter's confidence that that's exactly the role that he assigned Mondale.

GWEN IFILL: Richard says Mondale. Who do you say?

PENIEL JOSEPH: I would say Al Gore, and the reason why was Al Gore is that Al Gore, it's a true partnership with Bill Clinton. Clinton said he wanted a vice president, rather, who could be president from day one. They were both two Southern moderates.

And in a way, Gore represented Clinton's calmer alter-ego and, really, even his more bookish and introspective alter-ego. And Gore really stood away from the spotlight.

I think what the V.P. should do is never try to upstage the president. Somebody like Lyndon Johnson, who was John Kennedy's V.P., really had a larger-than-life persona that tended to upstage the president in a way to the point that Bobby Kennedy felt very protective -- maybe even overprotective -- of his brother's legacy, because Lyndon Johnson had been that famous master of the Senate.

Creating a role for the position

GWEN IFILL: But neither of the two men that Peniel Joseph named or that Richard named ever got to be president. They weren't able to use the stepping-stone qualities of the office.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, not for lack of trying in Mondale's or Al Gore's case. But, you know, that's an interesting thing, because for a long time, people would argue -- we might even have done so ourselves -- that it's a bad thing to have a vice president who wants to be president in the future because he's going to spend those whole two terms plotting how he can be president in the future and this is a bad thing, might undermine the presidency.

With Dick Cheney, easily the most powerful vice president in history, the interesting thing is he's the one who came in, did not aspire to run for president after two terms, probably because of his heart problem.

And to some extent the fact that he's been able to be so powerful and to some extent, you know, say, "I don't really care about polls these days. I'm willing to wait around for the judgment of history," he couldn't have done that if he were worrying about running and facing the electorate after two terms.

PENIEL JOSEPH: And certainly he was allowed that power by George W. Bush. The president can easily sort of triangulate and place his vice president out of power, and we saw everybody from FDR do this with Harry Truman, had no idea about the atomic bomb's existence until FDR passed away.

So the V.P. can be a place that you put someone -- in fact, a political enemy away from the spotlight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Or even in FDR's case had a vice president, John Nance Garner, who spent a lot of his vice presidency drinking, finally ran for president in 1940, and Roosevelt told his cabinet, "The vice president has thrown his bottle into the ring."

GWEN IFILL: Oh. Now, but explain to me, does he qualify, then, as perhaps your nominee for the worst vice president?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think probably Spiro Agnew, only because he very narrowly escaped going to prison, and I think maybe a modest requirement of vice presidents is that they obey the law.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Charles Curtis from Kansas.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He was law-abiding.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He was Herbert Hoover's vice president, which was not a lot of fun to begin with, and he was known as Egg Curtis. He had the shtick he would campaign, and he would hold up an egg, and rail about the price of eggs, and that was about all that he's remembered for.

Favorites for this fall's VP

GWEN IFILL: And based on the history here, if you get a call tomorrow from John McCain or Barack Obama saying, "What should I keep in mind as I try to make my pick? What can I get that would help in a vice president?" What would you say it has been historically?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I'd say it's two things for those different candidates. For the older, more seasoned John McCain, he's really looking for somebody who is vetted, is intelligent, and can one day become president if something happened to McCain, but really that he would be more of a junior partnership, maybe not something as blatant as Dan Quayle in 1988, but a junior partnership.

For someone like Senator Obama, I think he'd be looking for somebody who had judgment, who was in his same age range, and actually somebody who had more experience in foreign affairs, in certain weaknesses that the senator has.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And the interesting thing is we're all talking in a very high-minded way about vice presidents helping you to govern. But the fact is, first of all, you have to get elected.

GWEN IFILL: Well, yes, there's that.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: So while no one will admit it publicly, the fact of the matter is the candidate or a lot of people around the candidate are asking that question, "Who will help us get into the White House?" Then we can worry about how successful a vice president can be.

GWEN IFILL: Does a vice president help you get elected? You know, theoretically, but who has helped?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Only one that I can think of, at least since World War II. Lyndon Johnson helped John Kennedy get Texas, a couple of other Southern states he wouldn't have won in 1960.

But sometimes they help in other ways. You know, Peniel mentioned Al Gore as a very good vice president -- I agree with that -- also, as a candidate.

Clinton and Gore contradicted every rule of choosing a vice president. They were both Southern. They were both Baptist. They were both young. They were both centrists. You're supposed to balance, so the lesson goes.

But in that case, it doubled Clinton's message of being a Southern Baptist, centrist New Democrat, did a lot for that ticket, helped his presidency.

Does it really make the deal?

GWEN IFILL: So as we look at this, and we look at what's gone before, do we know whether, in the end, it matters who the vice president is, who this choice is?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think the vice presidency can actually hurt you more than it can help you. I think when George H.W. Bush picked Dan Quayle in 1988, people were really astonished, because Dan Quayle was perceived as somebody who wasn't quite ready to be commander-in-chief on day one.

Lyndon Johnson, like Michael said, helped JFK in 1960, and certainly Al Gore with Bill Clinton, but for the most part I think the V.P. can hurt you more than it can help you.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But I would argue that, at least marginally in 1980, picking George Bush helped Ronald Reagan in this sense. Reagan -- the dynamic of that race -- it's not dissimilar to this one -- Barack Obama is this very exciting, galvanizing challenger who needs to close the deal, who needs to reassure people who may have doubts.

Ronald Reagan in 1980 was in that position. And by going -- first, he asked Gerald Ford, remember, to be his running mate. That blew up. And he went with George Bush, which signals that, you know, I'm a pragmatist. I may not be a moderate Republican myself, but I can work with the full range in the political spectrum, and that I think helped him.

GWEN IFILL: Does it matter, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. And remember how they changed history. It made a big difference that Dick Cheney was vice president these last seven years. A vice president in the future may be that powerful.

The other is one in four become president. Lyndon Johnson, when he ran with Kennedy in 1960, was asked by Clare Boothe Luce why you're running with this guy you don't respect, and Johnson said, "I'm a gambling man, honey, and one in four vice presidents become president."

GWEN IFILL: I liked your Lyndon Johnson. That was very good.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You should hear his Clare Luce.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, Peniel Joseph, thank you all very much.