By Jules Witcover
Saturday, June 7, 2008 12:00 AM
As the prospective presidential nominees ponder choosing their running-mates, the specter of Vice President Dick Cheney looms large.
Eight years ago, Cheney's selection as George W. Bush's running mate was widely praised as sober and responsible. He had been a party leader in Congress, a White House chief of staff and a secretary of defense. In announcing his choice, Bush touted Cheney's experience and proclaimed him "capable of serving as president" if destiny so dictated.
But in many minds now, Cheney's free-wheeling exercise of executive power has impinged on the authority of the presidency. And his stormy and controversial tenure in the Bush White House may well produce a less powerful vice president in the next administration.
That is just as well. The vice presidency should never have been raised to a full partnership in running the country. Ronald Reagan prompted talk of a "co-presidency" when he flirted with the notion of taking former President Gerald Ford as his running mate in 1980, but cooler heads prevailed. The wisdom of that dismissal has been confirmed in the Cheney experience.
Still, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain should be cautious about overreacting to Cheney. They would be wrong to downplay the importance of past government service when appraising prospective running mates, and they would be unwise return the vice presidency to irrelevance. Overall, the elevation of the importance of the vice presidency has been a largely constructive trend.
The Constitution, you'll find, is vague about the role of the vice president. For much of its history, the office was relegated to obscurity and subject to ridicule. John Adams, America's first vice president, complained: "My country in its wisdom has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." Thomas Marshall, vice president under Woodrow Wilson, lamented that holding the job was like being "a man in a cataleptic state; he cannot speak; he cannot move, he suffers no pain, and yet he is perfectly conscious of everything that is going on about him." Wilson agreed. "The chief embarrassment in discussing this office," he once said, "is, that in explaining how little there is to be said about it, one has evidently said all here is to say."
But weak vice presidents can be more dangerous than strong ones. After all, nine vice presidents (almost 20 percent of them) have had to assume the presidency mid-term. And not all of them have been sufficiently prepared. When Chester Arthur, who had a history of corruption, became vice president under James Garfield in 1881, Nation magazine editor E.L. Godkin celebrated that there was no other place "in which his powers of mischief will be so small." Garfield's assassination later that year proved otherwise. And then there's Harry Truman, who until he moved into the Oval Office after Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945 didn't know about the development of the atomic bomb.
Jimmy Carter should perhaps get the most credit for initiating the modern enhancement of the vice presidency. Carter recognized his own lack of Washington experience, and so he agreed to make two-term Sen. Walter Mondale more involved (though not the dominant player) in his administration. Carter gave Mondale a West Wing office and open-door access to every presidential meeting. Most significantly, Mondale helped Carter negotiate his chief foreign policy achievement: the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.
Of course, not everyone since Carter has invested as much seriousness in the vice presidency. Mondale himself swung for the fences and picked Geraldine Ferraro, a little-known congresswoman from New York, for his long-shot challenge to Reagan in 1984. Eyes rolled in 1988, when George H.W. Bush picked gaffe-prone Dan Quayle. These choices made little political or governing sense. By contrast, Al Gore made important contributions to the administration he served as vice president.
The fact is that the vice presidency has become too important to be placed in less than highly competent hands. That doesn't mean giving up the keys to the kingdom -- it shouldn't be a co-presidency. But it does mean conceptualizing a job that will attract the most qualified candidates -- people valued not just for their ability to bring along electoral votes but for the ways they will complement a sitting president and their ability to step in if circumstances so require.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated political columnist and has covered national politics for more than 50 years. He is author of "Crapshoot: Rolling the Dice on the Vice Presidency."