Pity the Veep. Now he must battle not only Pat Robertson's formidable phantom army and the rest of the Republican field but an even more elusive foe, the ghost of Martin Van Buren.

That's right, Van Buren.

It was Van Buren whose legacy has caused every vice president to rail at the unfairness of his political fate. Van Buren was the last incumbent vice president to be elected president, and that was 152 years ago. His experience as chief executive was difficult and electorally disastrous.

With the voters' chant of "Van, Van is a used-up man" ringing in his ears, he was overwhelmingly defeated after one term. He even failed to carry his state of New York. Since then, no sitting vice president has been able to win the presidency directly at the polls.

The Founding Fathers didn't quite plan the American political system that way. They designed the vice presidency to be the logical steppingstone to the presidency, and initially that worked. John Adams, the first vice president, succeeded George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, the second, succeeded Adams. Van Buren moved up after serving as Andrew Jackson's running mate in 1832.

Like Bush so many generations later, Van Buren possessed one of the nation's most splendid political resumes.

He was a self-made man who became a celebrated New York lawyer. He was a politician so skilled that he was dubbed "the little magician" and "the American Talleyrand," credited with perfecting the "spoils system" as a means of staying in power. The caustic John Randolph of Roanoke said of him, "He rowed to his object with muffled oars." Van Buren was an officeholder with "talents for intrigue and leadership," as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. put it. He advanced rapidly as state legislator, attorney general, U.S. senator, governor and secretary of state before becoming vice president.

Yet of all his talents, political cunning, charm and wit, "his bearing as distinguished as Metternich" -- as he was described in his time -- came to naught after he won the presidency. He set the pattern for all other vice presidents. He could not separate himself from the controversial policies of his predecessor and could not capitalize on the immense personal popularity of the president he had served. The result was a situation that has lasted to this day. The only way a sitting vice president has ascended directly to the presidency has been because of death in office. That has happened eight times.

Four vice presidents moved up when a president died of natural causes: John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore followed Zachary Taylor, Calvin Coolidge succeeded Warren G. Harding and Harry S Truman followed Franklin D. Roosevelt. Four became president after assassinations. The two Johnsons, Andrew and Lyndon B., succeeded the slain Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Chester Alan Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt replaced the murdered James A. Garfield and William McKinley.

This mournful history has had powerful effect not only on incumbent vice presidents but also on the political parties that nominate them.

"The parties . . . have shown reticence about choosing their own vice presidents to head national tickets, having done so only twice in this century," notes Horace W. Busby, the political analyst and former White House operative. "In both instances, voters disapproved. Republicans in 1960 and Democrats in 1968 lost the White House with tickets headed by incumbent vice presidents; those defeats came only four years after each party had won the vice presidency by landslides."

Bush's predicament underscores and makes relevant all such ancient history.

But Bush need not examine 150 years of the presidency to draw a contemporary lesson. He only has to look at the last campaign of 1960s to discover perilous similarities to his political condition.

Hubert H. Humphrey's failure to establish his independence from President Johnson on Vietnam in 1968 cost him the presidency. Bush's failure to make clear his role in the Iran-contra affair could do the same, especially given the latest sordid revelations about Panama's secret role in training U.S.-backed contras even as Panama was an officially sanctioned gangster haven for drug dealers supplying the lucrative U.S. market.

None of this means that Bush's political fate is ordained. It does mean that he is in danger of falling into the familiar, and fatal, pattern of those who have tried following Van Buren's path to the top.