August 2, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: We get that longer look at the Vice Presidency from NewsHour regulars, Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Bechloss; journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and joined this week by Kay James, a Bush delegate from Virginia and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. It is Dick Cheney's night. But I keep reading this conventional wisdom that Vice Presidents don't matter that much anymore. What does history say?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know what I think -- I think the public perception of the impotence of the Vice President's role is way out of whack with the reality the institution developed in last 25 years. We've spent so much time talking an a party lady, not just Hillary but party ladies this potential power is so much greater. I think the reason that we are messed up about it is there are colorful sayings from the past about Daniel Webster says, well, I don't propose to be buried before I die.
You know, or that there's comments that somehow even George Bush said that one time all he did was go to funerals. You die and I fly. So all of these things come through. We all say them over and over again. In fact, as Haynes and I were talking about, 14 of the 42 Presidents have come from the Vice Presidency, either by death, by assuming it after assassination or by naturally being elected. They become the Presidential nominee almost by choice right now. And the office itself has been given so much more power. It is time we revised our position of this impotent office, which is no longer impotent.
RAY SUAREZ: Okay. What should be the definition?
HAYNES JOHNSON: The definition is, this is the first person that might be the President of the United States. When you are choosing a Vice President, you are choosing someone likely to be the President of the United States. You go back and as Doris said, we had 41 men, count the Presidents, Glover Cleveland counts twice - even though -- you add them up and 41 men were President of the United States. 14 Vice Presidents, that's one third.
And recent years, starting with Harry Truman, run down the list. They are either the Vice President succeed to the office, or they become the nominee of their party so that you are dominating the political process in that office. And it is no longer just a functional role, it is a role that, in fact, has great consonance in this age. Also we're an age of terrorism too. The idea of assassination, our Lincoln scholar is here, and can talk about that. But we're no longer in the time when that's an impossible thought. John Kennedy was not an aberration in this sort of thing, so the Vice Presidency counts.
KAY JAMES: I think the American people have seen with their own eyes, you know, just by watching the evening news what can happen to a President of the United States. It is not unlikely that, as you said, a terrorist or someone inside the borders of the United States could take out the life of our President. And so with that, I think Dick Cheney is walking into and stepping into a role the American people understand means that -- it is far more than just a figure head there is a good possibility that one day, he could serve in that capacity -- hopefully, by fulfilling his term and running on his own right.
RAY SUAREZ: He's made into a national figure by this nomination.
KAY JAMES: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He's made into a national figure, but there's something different about this nomination, and that is that every single Vice President from John Nance Garner in the 1930s all the way up to Al Gore in 2000 has run for President. And so there's the expectation when you nominate a Vice President, as the Republicans are doing tonight, that this Vice President will be next in the line of succession and will be the nominee in some future election.
But the fascinating thing is, very few delegates out on that floor tonight, I think, expect that in nominating Dick Cheney, that he will be the Presidential nominee in eight years should a President George W. Bush serve two terms. You have got Cheney, 59, but a very old 59 with some health problems. I think very few people think that they are essentially deciding the Republican line of succession tonight. So the fascinating thing is, in a way, for the first time in a very long time, a convention is leaving that line of succession open.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, the whole John Adams at one point that I'm Vice President, and in this I'm nothing, but I may be everything. And I think what happens nowadays is that almost everybody by rote says I don't want to be Vice President. Look at George Bush Sr. said Sherman cubed, taking his line saying if elected I won't serve, if nominated, I won't run, et cetera, et cetera. But I think almost always when asked, they'll say yes because as Bush said, once they are asked, they know how powerful this potential thing is as they are running for the next possibility which is what they are after from the time they are a little politician mostly.
KAY JAMES: I think with Dick Cheney, you also have factor and he's an extraordinary patriot. And I can't imagine him say nothing to someone who placed a call to him to ask him to serve his country in this way. So whether he has an eye on a higher office or not, if he believes in his heart of hearts that he has the opportunity to serve this nation that way and serve this country, he'll do it. And I don't think he necessarily has in mind that he's doing it as a steppingstone. And a lot of people have a great deal of respect for that kind of decision-making process that he went through.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And the politics of it. It used to be you balanced the ticket. You got someone from the south and you got someone from the north, and that really doesn't work. The last time it really worked, we talked about it before, Lyndon Johnson, and from Texas, in that election in 1960 when John Kennedy picked him that guaranteed the election. When Michael Dukakis tried to the same thing, Massachusetts and Lloyd Bentsen -- it didn't work. It is no longer geographical. It is a different sort of context.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think this will make a difference because until these last couple of weeks, one of the biggest barriers between George W. Bush and the White House has been the ability of the Gore people to say, this is someone who is not ready for primetime who isn't someone suitable to have his finger on the nuclear button. Cheney's nomination takes that off the table and makes it easier for Bush. So I think it very well could make a difference.
The other thing that's fascinating is you know what Cheney did as Gerald Ford's chief of staff in the 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller was the Vice President and Gerald Ford had given Rockefeller all sorts of grandiose promises, most powerful Vice President in history. And basically marginalized him. When Rockefeller came to Ford to complain, Ford would say, I want to give you these jobs, and I want to give you that kind of power, but it is that terrible chief of staff of mine Dick Cheney. Blame it on him. He was the bad man.
RAY SUAREZ: We'll talk more about the Vice President later. Thank you all.