The Roadrunners

Elizabeth Dole may go down in history as the woman who made American car manufacturers put those rear-dashboard brake lights on their products, but in my mind, she’ll be forever linked to the Secret Service. It was Tuesday afternoon of the week of the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego, I believe, when GOP functionaries, sensing the enervated what-are-we-doing-here mood of the assembled press, promised that a “major surprise” would unveil itself on the convention floor that night. This led to Sid Blumenthal, then with The New Yorker, turning to me in a hotel-lobby bar and rendering a harmless joke about Bob Dole’s mortality, which was overheard by a humorless alternate Buchanan delegate from Alaska, which in turn led to Blumenthal’s being detained by said Secret Service and my being questioned by same. The gendarmes got the spirit of the joke, and we were all quickly released on our own reputations. Christopher Hitchens fetched Blumenthal a remedial gin and tonic. Different times.

Anyway, the “major surprise” turned out to be Liddy’s taking to the floor with a handheld mike and delivering her “Oprah” speech, which didn’t exactly live up to the billing. She never did, really, which is why her presidential candidacy was measured in weeks and why even her husband didn’t seem to support her; but there she was again last week, up in New Hampshire, endorsing George W.

No one in the Dole or Bush camps would say as much, of course, but that endorsement marked the beginning of the other campaign – for vice-president. And Dole’s was not the only pitch along these lines last week. The Times editorial page, at least, saw in Governor George Pataki’s emphasis on education policy in his State of the State address a “semaphore signal” to Bush “to consider Mr. Pataki as a running mate.” On the Democratic side, it is said in Washington that the vice-presidential slot is the object of desire of Bill Richardson, the former congressman, current Energy secretary, and erstwhile offerer of a job to Monica Lewinsky, who turned it down. Richardson, if the New York rumor mill has any credibility, may find competition in Andrew Cuomo.

Why is all this worth remarking on now? Because each pairing – Dole against Pataki; Richardson against Cuomo; and, clearly, other candidates in both parties – highlights the transformation of the vice-presidency, and of national electoral strategy in general, from a game of hardball politics to a contest over image, which is no longer so concerned with traditional ticket-balancing or regional parity but is almost entirely about what kind of package the two standard-bearers make together in Zeitgeist terms. How they embody the new century, or look tossing a football.

“The Big State theory of vice-presidential politics seems all but over – indeed, the most striking thing about early veep talk is that practically no Californian is on any list.”

In the modern era, says Arthur Schlesinger Jr., it’s usually been the case that a presidential nominee has taken as his vice-president “a leader of the defeated faction in the party, as an attempt to show unity.” And this is the basic reason, he notes, that presidents and vice-presidents have never worked well together. “Think of Coolidge and Charles Dawes,” Schlesinger says. “Coolidge represented the business-based, Eastern wing of the party, while Dawes was a representative of the agricultural, Midwestern interests. They hated each other.”

This was SOP until Bill Clinton came along and chose Gore. Clinton had weighed, ironically enough, the possibility of Bill Bradley; invited him to Little Rock for an interview, which the then-senator declined. Imagine how different the present Democratic contest would be, with the same two candidates, if Bradley had been the insider and Gore the outsider! But Clinton ordained the present by choosing Gore, not from another part of the county or another wing of the party or a large, electorally important state, but someone just like him: “He chose Clinton-squared,” in the words of one GOP operative.

Thus was the mold smashed. Now anything’s possible; the thing these days is to be unconventional. The choice has to surprise people, either because the choice is so like the nominee that it wins points for being counterintuitive or so utterly unlike the nominee that it comes across as daring, even weird, almost. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it was the Republican Party, and not the Democratic Party, that went with a woman? Or an African-American (Colin Powell, still every Republican’s favorite choice)?

None of these calculations helps poor New York very much. Our time as a major player in these sweepstakes may have come and gone. The Big State theory of vice-presidential politics seems all but over – indeed, the most striking thing about early veep talk is that practically no Californian is on any list, with the exception of Dianne Feinstein, whose name people throw into the mix mostly because they feel obliged to mention someone from California.

And besides, there are surprises, and there are surprises. If the Bush people start to take a close look at Pataki – who’s been thinking vice-presidency for a couple of years now – they’ll surely read the clips about Yung Soo Yoo, the Korean-American businessman and Pataki fund-raiser indicted last month for promising favorable parole rulings to three Korean families who had sons in the state prison system if only they’d contribute to the Pataki campaign. They did, and one family’s son was indeed paroled. There’s no evidence that Pataki had any knowledge of this, and it should be noted that the families’ contributions were returned. But none of this explains why Mr. Yoo was on Pataki’s transition team, even though he’d been convicted of fraud in the eighties. There will be questions.

But Pataki shouldn’t want the job. Nor should Dole or Richardson or any of them. It’s mostly a bane, as Gore demonstrates daily, and it was never supposed to matter much anyway. The fault, say Schlesinger and fellow historian Henry Graff, lies with John Tyler, who instituted a virtual coup d’état when William Henry Harrison died. “John Quincy Adams derisively called Tyler acting president,” Graff says. “But Tyler said, ‘Screw you, I’m here.’ ” Schlesinger has gone so far, in his The Cycles of American History, to call for the office’s elimination. Secretaries of State could go to funerals; a cabinet officer could run the country until a special election; we’d just have to find someone to break ties in the Senate. And someone with whom the presidential candidate could toss a football.


The Roadrunners