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The Marriage of the Year

A history lesson for Kerry as he vets VP resumes.

June 03, 2004|Dan Coen and Glenn Rabney

Now that John Kerry has wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president, his next big challenge could be his most important: his selection for vice president. From Harry Truman to Dan Quayle, the choice is telling. Some presidential nominees have gotten it right; others have stumbled. The second string is both partner and bench warmer. Gone today, here tomorrow.

Here then, as our way of helping Kerry sort though the pile of resumes that surely are coming over the transom, is a list of characteristics that history has shown are desirable in a U.S. vice president, at least from the president's point of view. The vice president should:

* Offer no surprises. A president wants an underling who can be depended upon not to draw attention to himself. As Thomas Jefferson would attest, being notified that your vice president (in Jefferson's case it was Aaron Burr) has just shot and killed your secretary of the Treasury can make future Cabinet meetings very uncomfortable.

* Have other interests. In most cases, the best vice presidents were those who, upon being sworn in, left town, often returning to their homes to ride out the administration in obscurity. Ulysses S. Grant's vice president, Henry Wilson, took up writing and completed a three-volume history of the U.S. while serving; Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed camping and traveling and even pursued a law degree; and Nelson Rockefeller spent his time redesigning the vice presidential seal.

* Be on the same political page. Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson had one special thing in common: They both enjoyed the service of John C. Calhoun as their vice president. Unfortunately, that meant Calhoun was somewhat of a renegade and pursued his own political course. After serving with Adams for four difficult years, he switched sides and ran with Jackson against Adams. After serving with Jackson for three equally difficult years, he quit the office entirely and went back to the Senate.

* Lack personal ambition. There is nothing worse than being the top dog with someone else nipping at your heels, coveting your job. Few vice presidents were less ambitious than Hanibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln's first VP, who shortly after taking office returned to Maine, where he joined the Coast Guard and spent the rest of his term as a cook. Hamlin was so good at lacking ambition that, during the Civil War, the vice president managed to never rise above the rank of private.

* Avoid being clever. Some people are just good at giving a quote, and Thomas Marshall -- Woodrow Wilson's VP -- was one of the best. His comment that what the country needed was a really good 5-cent cigar is legendary. Now try to remember something that Wilson said. See? Alben Barkley was so popular that he was given his own television show, "Meet the Veep," which occasionally forced Truman to answer awkward questions about something his underling had said. Again, not a good thing.

In fact, before the 25th Amendment, which required that dead vice presidents be replaced, one of the best VPs might have been William King, who died after 46 days in office, leaving Franklin Pierce in peace for the next four years. Of course King, a bachelor who was partial to wearing silk scarves, jewelry and powdered wigs, probably wouldn't have been a good fit for Kerry anyhow.

The message to Kerry: Be wise and prudent. The choice of vice president may, or may not, be remembered for years to come.

Dan Coen is managing director of He wrote, and Glenn Rabney edited, the book "Second String: Trivia, Facts and Lists About the Vice Presidency" (DCD Publishing, 2004).

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