When George Bush moves his lips these days, I hear the words of Vice President Hubert Humphrey running for president in 1968, and it pains me to recollect those difficult days.
Ten years ago this month, after a long and illustrious public career, Humphrey died a deservedly revered and honored man. He had spent more than 30 years in elected office as mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota and vice president of the United States, making our system work to the benefit of millions.
During many of those years, he talked of running for president, and in 1968, he finally got the Democratic nomination. Unfortunately, he ran as the incumbent vice president, struggling to perform an impossible act of staying close to President Johnson and far away at the same time. He lost to Richard Nixon, who had himself lost to John Kennedy in 1960, leaping toward temporary oblivion from the stepping stone of his eight years as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president.
As the 10th anniversary of Humphrey's death approaches, because I worked for or near him for a long time and edited his autobiography, reporters looking back on his career have called me, wanting to discuss his significant contributions to American society and law. When I have finished my litany of what he thought important, each reporter has remarked that all the landmark achievements I listed took place while Humphrey was in the Senate: civil rights legislation, the Peace Corps, Food for Peace, federal aid to education, Medicare, the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Each reporter has then asked: "Wasn't there something as important accomplished while he was vice president?" I have paused to appear thoughtful, but I really don't need the time. The answer is simply, "No, there was nothing that came close during those four vice presidential years. The job just didn't permit it, no matter how hard Humphrey tried."
It pains me to say so, but a Spiro Agnew is as likely to do about as well as a Hubert Humphrey or a Walter Mondale or a George Bush, and a Nelson Rockefeller no better. The job of vice president prepares you to be president only in the sense that you are there in case the president dies. The rest is robotics.
It is a job of no consequence, of few real and many quite forgettable accomplishments and, more's the pity, of self-delusion that you are an irreplaceable player in important acts of state.
It begins with the Secret Service protection. Agents make you look like a president, all those men and women ready to die to protect you, all the cars and code names and walkie-talkies and guns and bulletproof vests. Air Force 2 and helicopters and agents awake outside your door while you are asleep feed the ego in wondrous ways.
And then there are the headlines and the game of "Pick Up Chips." You may be nothing in Washington, but when you attend a political fund-raiser in Topeka or Tupelo or Tucson, you warrant eight-column headlines, front-page pictures and the undying gratitude of local political activists. You want to shout, "I am somebody."
The delusion continues with the national security briefings. You pretend they are just like the president's when they are really the same edited briefing material that a couple of dozen other anonymous folks at the State Department get.
"Almost the same" is how a Bush aide recently described Bush's briefings, a euphemism for "quite different, sanitized and incomplete." I once played the same charade.
Voodoo vice presidency often reaches its epiphany with the awesome statement that "I have talked to heads of state." I stood close by when Humphrey said it and thought it meant something. I heard Walter Mondale say it, and now George Bush proclaims it. It is an expression that drips with empty meaning.
Vice presidents frequently are sent to funerals of heads of state to represent our country. Their visits with living heads of state are only marginally more productive. Yet, vice presidents all brag about what those visits mean. "I can deal with a head of state, therefore, I myself can be a head of state." It is a kind of Cartesian proof of both existence and importance, but it is nonsense.
The fact is that no vice president does more than operate within the constraints set down by the president or more probably by the secretary of state. You may arrange, but you do not really negotiate. You may explain, you may request, but you do not innovate, deviate or spontaneously combust.
So set aside the "head of state" canard.
The other echo of times past comes when the vice president is asked to describe those occasions when he differed from the president on a variety of embarrassing policies. Bush on Iran-contra questions or Humphrey on Vietnam, the ultimate defense is the same: "I have offered my points of view privately; I am loyal and I have aired my differences only to the president. I am not going to change that now that I am running for the presidency."
It is the perfect defense. No incumbent president is likely to list points of disagreement. If the president was right, in hindsight, it can only embarrass the vice president. If the vice president was right, it can only embarrass the president. Further, the wonderful quality of the statement is that it implies differences that may never have existed. Each voter gets to fill in his own prejudices.
The job of vice president means you are not homeless and you do draw a regular paycheck. Beyond that, you are what the president allows you to be, but you have no real authority, no real responsibility and no independent clout. And almost everyone inside knows that.
A vice president goes as a messenger wherever he goes, trappings of derivative power substituting for the real thing. The secretaries of state and defense have more authority on foreign affairs and defense policy. And, on domestic issues, each Cabinet officer, no matter how lowly or mediocre, has more authority in his or her field than the vice president.
So what shall we make of George Bush's claims? Not much, I'm afraid. He is in the time-honored tradition of those who have preceded him. Service as vice president probably should not disqualify him, or anyone, from running for president or serving if elected. But Eisenhower wanted a week to think of something Nixon had done; I've had 10 years to think of what Humphrey, whom I idolized, did as VP. It all adds up to zero.
Eugene McCarthy once derisively described Walter Mondale as having the "soul of a vice president." I think that is unfair. It is only a temporary condition that lasts from election to defeat or some other rehabilitation. Mondale has recovered. Humphrey did too. Since only one person in the country can suffer from the condition at one time, we know that George Bush, with luck, will also soon be well. Just pity the next guy.
The writer was press secretary to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice president.