A Dead-End Job No Longer

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If history is any guide, and it generally is, Joe Lieberman’s ritual introduction to the American mass audience Wednesday night portended a very long stay on the political stage.

That may seem obvious and banal. Sorry. But until quite recently, vice presidential aspirants were just fleeting, bit players in politics. The losing ones were footnotes to footnotes in American history.

The roster of veeps-to-be in the middle of the 20th century is dazzling for its obscurity and anonymity. Who could forget Frank Knox (1936), Charles L. McNary (1940), and John W. Bricker (1944)? Every school child can regale proud parents with the zany escapades of John J. Sparkman (1952) and William Miller (1964). Spiro Agnew (1968 and 1972) is somewhat more memorable, but mostly for his immense comedic value.

In 1948, sitting President Harry Truman offered the No. 2 job to William O. Douglas, a Supreme Court justice. He said thanks, but no thanks. Then Truman offered the post to Douglas’s boss, Chief Justice Fred Vinson. He took a pass. Truman eventually went with a 71 year-old party warhorse from Kentucky, Senator Alben Barkley. But he didn’t make up his mind until after Barkley had delivered the keynote address at the party convention.

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The vice presidency was seen as a dead-end job.

The most famous insult to the office came from John Nance Garner, FDR’s vice president, who said the post wasn’t worth a "warm bucket of spit." (Lord knows how he might have described the presidency if he ever got there.)

All that, of course, changed in a big way. Starting with Walter Mondale, elected in 1976, the job itself began to change as presidents gave their vice presidents more substantive roles and influence. Mondale, Bush, and Gore had power and prestige vice presidents named Nixon, Johnson, and Humphrey could only wish for. And, man, did they wish for it.

And when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, the vice presidency was used to break a societal barrier, to make an important political and social statement. That happened again last week with Joe Lieberman. (And it could have also happened with Colin Powell in 1996 or 2000, in either party.) This has further enhanced the office.

Ten of the past 11 presidential elections featured one or more former veep candidates running for president. And in the last 25 years, campaigning for or holding the job of vice president has become an especially crucial part o testing presidential timber. Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, and Jack Kemp didn’t pass muster and they disappeared from the top echelon of politics.

But the rest of the class did very nicely. They’re the guys who run for president and sometimes win: Mondale, Dole, Bush the Elder, and Gore.

Lloyd Bentsen would probably be on this if he were younger when Michael Dukakis ran with him. That won’t be a problem for Joe Lieberman. Win or lose, chances are good that some day Joe Lieberman will be president or a serious contender.

And that means that Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate for vice president, may not be done making history, and more than a footnote’s worth.