Politics & Policy


Picking the "spare-tire-in-chief."

Next to “assistant crack whore,” “road-kill puppeteer,” or “NRO proofreader,” the vice presidency is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Theodore Roosevelt called it “a steppingstone to oblivion,” John Nance Garner called it “the spare tire of American government.” Al Gore called it “the greatest job he ever had,” but he could bore a cat out of a tree, so what do you expect? (Actually, I don’t know if Gore said that. I’m just assuming that because he seems like the kind of guy who has worked all of his life to be the best second-place finisher in the world).

Anyway, the simple fact is that the day the vice-presidential candidate is selected, his importance decays with an unstoppable half-life. After he is elected, his uselessness factor accelerates. By the time he concludes his first make-work — vice-presidential task force on “Streamlining the Procurement and Acquisition of Doodads, Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits that Nobody Pays any Attention To” (Chapter 7, “The Rectal Thermometer Crisis: What Price Freedom?”) — he’ll discover that there’s no hurry in getting back from lunch. And, when he returns from his third funeral for a dictator who’s name means — roughly — “Thrusting Rooster Whose Loins Quench the Fires of a Grateful Nation” all the president will ask him is “Hey, did you get me one of those big Toblerone chocolate bars from the duty-free shop?”

“Um, No Mr. President. I took Air Force Two. We didn’t pass a Duty Free.”

“Oh, well. You can probably find them at the Seven-Eleven down Pennsylvania Avenue. Could you go grab me a couple? We got things pretty well-covered here. Oh, and take the dog, willya? He looks like Lyndon Johnson on water-retention pills.”

But don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the who-will-he-pick game. And we actually owe Bill Clinton some gratitude on this score. By breaking the “balance-the-ticket” school of veep-picking, he made things a lot more interesting. (Remember when Michael Dukakis picked Lloyd Bentsen because he thought that it would conjure the spirit of the Boston-Austin axis of the 1960 election? Seriously, Dukakis was obsessed with the idea that he represented the excitement and energy of the Camelot days and all he needed was a Texas politician to round out the picture for the voters. That was like Clinton thinking that if he yelled “bully” a lot and declared a bunch of trees a national monument, people would think he was Teddy Roosevelt).

In 1992, by picking another young southern Democrat with a reputation for moderation — deserved or otherwise — Clinton used the veep slot as a way to reinforce the candidate’s image rather than balance one coalition with another. Clinton proved that the impression on TV was more important than the parochial considerations behind the scenes.

That change in the conventional wisdom creates a lot of possibilities for Bush and Gore. Bush could pick another southerner, a conservative, commonsense governor like Frank Keating from Oklahoma (where the wind comes sweeping down the plains). Or, he could go with Chris Cox, a smart, wonky, telegenic figure, who, unfortunately, would drag Newt Gingrich into the presidential election. Don’t get me wrong, Gingrich was on the right side of most political arguments. He was also just on the wrong side of his mouth and his pants. But listening to Al Gore talk about Newt Gingrich is as grating as listening to a student-government president complain that the student-activities money hasn’t come in yet.

Anyway, I think either of these guys — currently ahead in the NRO veep poll — are both good picks. I can hardly get passionate about them, but getting passionate about a vice president is like going into a blind rage over a printing error that causes Jonathan Alter’s column not to make it into this week’s issue of Newsweek. However, I will drink an entire wine glass filled with horse bile if Arlen Specter is mentioned as a possibility. But, that is unlikely.

As for Gore, he apparently believes — shockingly enough — that the process which picked him was so incandescently brilliant that it must be repeated. That’s why he’s tapped Warren Christopher, Clinton’s veep-vetter in 1992. The problem is that if Christopher is going to find someone who reinforces Gore’s characteristics — his charm, his approach to the issues, his virility, and sense of rhythm — Christopher has a conflict of interest. The only choice is Christopher himself. If only he were still alive.


Okay, first of all: Shut up, I’m tired. Second, my piece on Bryant Gumbel is up on the site. So, if you’ve read this far, you’ll read anything. Go there by clicking here. Third, Mike “Don’t Call Me Mike” Potemra is back from his well-deserved but wholly inconvenient vacation. As penance, he will provide a Latin translation of this column. More importantly, his own Nota Bene column should be returning soon. Right, Mike? Fourth, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, that quote on Monday was from Dr. Strangelove — Bill Clinton’s nickname in the intern pool — please stop sending me e-mails about it. Fifth, if you missed my syndicated column on animal-rights stuff, you could click here. Sixth, “but first cut the blue wire” (what’s that sorta from?). Seventh, if you haven’t voted in the NRO veep poll, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Eighth, my friend, Nick Schulz, has registered “riskyscheme.com” because he felt anything said so often by a national political leader has got to be worth something. Whether that logic really holds, I don’t know since “ifeelyourpain.com,” “I’vebeenworkingsohard.com” or “it’sokaysugarnobodycanseeusbehindmydesk.com” haven’t been huge money makers either. Still, if you have an idea or an offer for “riskyscheme.com,” let him know.


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