Monday, May 12, 2008

Thinking Ahead

On most days, the vice presidency, as John N. Garner, the first of three vice presidents under Franklin D. Roosevelt, so elegantly put it, "isn't worth a pitcher of warm ****."

(Historians have cleaned up the "****" and told people for nearly 70 years that Garner said "spit," but I've heard a variety of expletives used in that sentence, and I suppose you could choose the one to which you happen to be partial. I don't think the meaning of the sentence would change too much, and I'm sure Garner, who was as rough as a cob, wouldn't mind.)

But there are a few days in the life of a vice president, as the Chicago Tribune reminds us in an editorial, when "history can put sudden heavy responsibility on the occupant of the office."

It's a lesson, the Tribune points out, that was learned by Dick Cheney on Sept. 11, 2001, when airplanes were being hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- and George W. Bush was somewhere in Florida with a bunch of elementary school children.

Cheney had to be prepared to make some tough decisions in a hurry.

And the vice president's routine can change permanently -- not temporarily, as Cheney's did in 2001. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Harry Truman said he "felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."

The Tribune reminds John McCain and his apparent general election rival, Barack Obama, that "the choice of a running mate is one that should not be made without a sober appreciation of its importance."

If McCain is elected president, he will be, at age 72, the oldest man to enter the presidency. He has had health problems in the past.

"[McCain's] vice president would have a higher-than-average statistical likelihood of ascending," says the Tribune.

"But even the youthful Barack Obama should keep in mind that life offers no guarantees of longevity," continues the Tribune. "Eight presidents have failed to live out their terms."

I would argue that the choice of a running mate is just as crucial for the Democrat, whether it's Obama or Hillary Clinton, as it is for McCain.

If a death by natural causes doesn't seem plausible for either of the Democrats, remember this: Half of the eight presidents who died in office were assassinated.

As distasteful as it is to make this observation, the first black president or the first woman president would be tantalizing targets for an assassination attempt.

So, while it's tempting to look at a potential running mate and see only the political benefits that person brings to the ticket, the Tribune is correct when it says the presumptive nominees "should start the winnowing process with the most important question: Would you trust this person with life-and-death decisions in a moment of crisis?"

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