When Jimmy Carter invited Walter F. Mondale to become the first vice president to occupy a White House office, his intentions were the best. He wanted to demonstrate that his running mate would be "a full working partner" in his administration, instead of the fifth wheel most past vice presidents had been made to feel.
But, inadvertent as it may have been, the precedent Carter set turns out to be a form of subtle psychological torture for the occupant of that west-wing office. He lives every day with the poignant knowledge that the Oval Office, with all the authority it represents, is so near and yet so far.
I was reminded of this the other day when I interviewed the current Man Down the Hall, George Bush. In the course of 40 minutes of conversation, he said, not once, but at least four times, that he had never been "more relaxed, more comfortable" than he is on the doorstep of the presidency.
Mondale used to make similar statements, and in both cases the listener's inevitable feeling was that "he doth protest too much."
Make no mistake. Bush reaps enormous political benefits from being Reagan's right-hand man and presumptive political heir. The early polls all show him far ahead of any other Republican. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R- Ga.), an ardent supporter of rival aspirant Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), said the other day that, even at this early stage, the imperative for all the other contenders is to figure out how to "stop George Bush." In organization, money and standing, Bush is in a class by himself.
Much of that benefit derives from Reagan's patronage. The president has declared well in advance that he will deliver no formal endorsement to any of the Republican contenders. But he has gone out of his way to praise Bush and to permit him to use the White House as his organizing base. Bush need never fear a put-down from Reagan such as Richard Nixon endured in 1960, when Dwight D. Eisenhower said he would need a week to think of a decision in his administration to which Nixon had made a major contribution.
Yet within moments of asserting in the interview how "good" and "relaxed" he feels in his political position, Bush himself said he is "frustrated" by "certain confines" in his situation.
"No question," he said, but that public perception of him is not what he thinks he deserves. "Everybody who comes in here asks the same question," he said: "Who are you? What do you want to do?" Those are vexing questions for a man who has spent 20 years in public life. But Bush thinks "people must have gotten a feel" for him and like what they know, or why would he be the early leader in the race?
"For that reason," he said, "I don't feel threatened about having to stretch out on the couch" and let the press and the public analyze him. "Maybe I'll wake up and prove to be wrong, but I don't worry about it. I might have a few years ago."
These introspective thoughts have hardened into one simple and reassuring explanation for the vice president. Bush said that the reason reporters badger him about his real beliefs is that, "For the last five years, I have put off limits criticizing the president of the United States. . . . Everybody has differences, but for the vice presidency to work, for me to do the the job the way I want to, I'm just not willing to highlight the differences."
In my view, Bush's decision is not only practical but honorable. But his analysis of his acknowledged image problem is far too limited.
There are many ways a vice president can define himself other than by publicizing his differences with the president. He can, for example, display his own intelligence and political style in advocating, and seeking to build support for, administration policies.
Bush is a tireless advocate with a backbreaking schedule. But his speeches in support of presidential initiatives are determinedly routine, a predictable minor-key echo of Reagan's rhetoric. They give no clue that these are anything but hand-me-down positions for Bush.
The failure so far to establish a strong independent political image as vice president leaves Bush stuck with pictures from his past. And most of those were not moments he prizes.
The George Bush who "froze" on stage with Reagan at the 1980 Nashua, N.H., high school debate was not the real George Bush, his friends say. Nor was the hyperkinetic individual who debated Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and then bragged that he had "kicked a little ass." Nor was the man who made the circuit of conservative groups this past winter, pledging allegiance to their social-issue agenda and drawing scornful comments even from skeptical conservative columnists.
None of these occasions displayed the character and competence that have earned Bush the loyalty, support and affection of many able men and women who have crossed his path from boyhood onward. Yet these are the pictures he has left with the public.
"Relaxed and comfortable" as Bush may be in his front-runner position, he has not begun to solve the basic dilemma in his position: How does the Man Down the Hall show the public the strength and independence they want in the Oval Office without running afoul of the man who sits there?