This August in Los Angeles, when Vice President Al Gore accepts the Democratic presidential nomination, it will mean that in seven of the last nine presidential elections, one or both of the major party nominees will have previously served as vice president. So the choice of a vice presidential running mate can be of critical future career importance to the individual who is chosen.
But how important is the vice presidential choice to the outcome of the November election? Not very, as the events of Oct. 5, 1988, in Omaha remind us. That was the night of that year's only vice presidential debate when Republican Dan Quayle, seeking to bolster his own credentials, observed, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Mark Shields. . . what both men, especially Gore, urgently need to do is to demonstrate their own judgment . . .
Quayle's Democratic opponent, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, with appropriate reluctance, delivered that sorry campaign's most memorable sound bite: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
One post-debate poll named Bentsen the winner by a four-to-one margin. But in spite of a nearly two-to-one preference overall for Bentsen over Quayle, voters on Nov. 8 still chose Republican George Bush over Democrat Michael Dukakis.
It was Richard Nixon, along with Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of only two Americans in history to have been five times nominated for a national office, who concluded, "A vice president cannot help you (in a presidential campaign), he can only hurt you."
Nixon made that observation in 1968, the same year he explained at a press party his choice of Maryland governor Spiro ("nolo contendere") Agnew to be only a single heartbeat away from the presidency in these words: "There is a mysticism about men. There is a quiet confidence. You look a man in the eye and you know he's got it -- brains. This guy has got it. If he doesn't, Nixon has made a bum choice."
What is genuinely revealing about any choice of a vice presidential running mate is what that choice tells us about the judgment, the boldness and the self-confidence of the presidential nominee making that choice. Richard Nixon's choice of Agnew permanently wounded his reputation for sound judgment. By persuading Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to join his ticket, John F. Kennedy revealed both a lust for victory and uncommon boldness in his willingness to anger by his choice his most committed and zealous supporters.
Like Kennedy in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1980, by seeking to forge a dream team ticket with former President Gerald R. Ford, revealed an authentic self confidence which would serve him well in the White House.
To his supporters, many of whom were true believers, Reagan was more than a candidate. He was a cause. Even to their most ardent admirers, neither Texas Gov. George W. Bush nor Vice President Gore has ever been a cause. Each man is a candidate and the nominee of a mostly united party. Neither nominee needs to re-enlist any group or interest through his VP choice. But what both men, especially Gore, urgently need to do is to demonstrate their own judgment, boldness, and particularly their level of self-confidence by the running mate they do choose.
Last February during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, conservative backers of Bush basically demonized Arizona Sen. John McCain, ostensibly because during his 17 years of pro-life voting in Congress the Arizonan had broken ranks to support fetal tissue research backed by the victims of Parkinson's Disease.
Now televangelist Pat Robertson, one of Bush's most fervent endorsers and one of McCain's most ardent antagonists, reveals on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Bush's naming of a pro-choice running mate such as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge would not cost the Texan Robertson's support: "I personally could probably accept it ..." Perhaps a minor dustup with more strict pro-life Republicans in Philadelphia will be averted when Pat Robertson eloquently explains why pro-life John McCain was unacceptable in February and a pro-choice running mate would be A-OK in July.
A wise man once said of the man from Independence: "Harry Truman lived 70 years of his life in Jackson County, Mo. He liked being Harry Truman. He was comfortable being Harry Truman. He never thought of being anybody other than Harry Truman."
That is an awfully good test for anybody who seeks to sit in the Oval Office. And the test begins with a man's choice of a running mate and would-be successor.