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Vice Presiddency Becoming More Attractive Goal

Vice Presiddency Becoming More Attractive Goal

IN THE NOT DISTANT PAST, ambitious politicians avoided the vice presidency as if it were a boneyard for faceless men, or worse. A deathless line from the satirical musical comedy, "Of Thee I Sing," summed up the general disrepute in which the office was held: The unprepossessing Throttlebottom, pressed to accept the vice presidential spot by the political bosses, asked plaintively, "What if my mother were to find out?"

Times have changed, and that old shibboleth of American politics, that men don't run for the vice presidential nomination, has vanished. With the national conventions a few weeks away, second-place fever has actively gripped a number of prominent Democrats, who are only partly motivated by the knowledge that the top spot is spoken for, or shortly will be, by President Johnson.

This emotional excitement about the consolation prize is considerably less rampant among Republicans, naturally, for it would be both impolitic and imprudent for a man to declare himself a candidate for the No. 2 post when lightning has yet to strike the presidential nominee. And yet, Richard M. Nixon, a former vice president who was nominated for the presidency in 1960, has said that he would accept second place for this year's contest. So, on the Democratic side, has Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 and 1956 presidential candidate—a clear and dramatic indication of the value now being placed on the vice presidency.

It is not hard to find the reasons why convention delegates will probably pay more attention to the choice of a vice presidential nominee than at any time since Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for a fourth term in 1944, prompting serious observers to wonder if health might not prove to be a grim arbiter of his successor. Their fears were borne out, and that Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri was the vice  presidential nominee, instead of Henry A. Wallace or Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, seems, in retrospect, to have been as much a product of FDR's whim as of deliberate consideration and judgment by the convention.

With the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nation was reminded with shocking force that man's fate can be governed by a very cruel caprice. More than that, the tragedy reinforced the growing doubt that the old standards of judgment in choosing a running mate—geographic balance, philosophic har mony, good looks, few enemies, and the like—are good enough in a restless, complex, push-button environment in which the fortunes of mankind can be decided in a space of minutes. No longer is a whimsical choice tolerable. And nobody is more mindful of that fact than Lyndon B. Johnson, a grim witness to what is required of a man in that abrupt and awesome transition period.

It should be noted here that Mr. Kennedy selected Senator Johnson as his running mate in I960, not so much in the quest for the second best possible man as for the traditional reasons. The Texas senator offered that coveted balance—he was a Protestant, a man with appeal to both the South and West, and thus a complement to the Boston Irish Catholic. It is true that Mr. Kennedy once was quoted as saying that he thought himself as well qualified to be President as any other man "except probably Lyndon," but this writer can attest to the fact that Mr. Johnson's potential as a President was of secondary concern at the Los Angeles convention.

We have a vivid memory of flying back from the Democratic convention to Hyannisport, Mass., with the presidential nominee, and by sheer happenstance sitting in the seat behind the candidate. We suggested at one point that Mr. Johnson's choice may have been a cynical one in view of the tough and often hostile battle between the two rivals at the convention, but that it was nonetheless formidable. Mr. Kennedy was almost furious at our use of the word, cynical. He said that Democrats always managed to compose their differences, that there were precedents for his action in Al Smith's choice of Arkansas' Joe Robinson in 1928 and Roosevelt's running with John Nance Garner in 1932. And besides, the nominee said with firmness, "We want to win, and Lyndon will help us in the South."

The President's health is always a matter of some delicacy to a vice president, but the job of chief executive has become too important, too crucial in the affairs of the nation and world to ignore it. Mr. Johnson's physical condition would seem to be excellent. He often swims five laps of the White House pool during his daily dips, and he goes at a tireless, driving pace in his oval office. Yet, though he has shown all the strength and stamina of a cross-country runner since assuming the presidency, he was once a heart patient. He has fully recovered but there is legitimate concern about the schedule he keeps with such furious energy, and his past medical history inevitably becomes a somewhat special factor in the selection of a running mate.

How a man runs for the vice presidential nomination, under today's circumstances, is an interesting, and sometimes quite subtle, exercise. He must move and maneuver with maximum discretion, speaking in the right places (party rallies, political dinners) only about his current work and saying as little as possible about his availability except when asked and then limiting his response to a bland statement that he's flattered that anyone would think of him for so exalted a station but that the choice is President Johnson's alone to make.

Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the assistant majority leader in the upper house and a hot aspirant for the post, says it this way: "I'm not running for anything. My only concern at the moment is being the very best majority whip possible, and letting the future take care of itself." Translated by knowledgeable political types, this means: "Of course, I'm interested, and when the call comes—as I hope and trust it will—I'll be there with my track shoes  laced." Besides Adlai Stevenson, other men who have indicated in one way or the other that they would not run away from the nomination include the other Minnesota Senator, Eugene McCarthy, Sen. Edmund Murine of Maine, Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown of California, and Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy brotherin-law and antipoverty field general, to mention a few. All except Mr. Stevenson happen to be Catholics. And all have been remarkably discreet.

This discretion is well advised. President Johnson clearly indicated weeks ago that he would resent any pressures upon him to favor one man over another too far in advance of the August convention. It's entirely possible he will wait till the last moment so as to keep the fealty of all hands right down to the wire The reported difficulties between the President and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy earlier this year could be traced as much as anything else to a White House suspicion that Mr. Kennedy's friends would have liked to foreclose the choice in behalf of their man.

The submerged contest for the vice presidential nod is indeed a far cry from the days when Throttlebottom made his classic complaint. An anthology of jests could be compiled about the office. Mister Dooley, Peter Finley Dunne's acidulous barkeep, once observed, "Th' prisidincy is th' highest office in th' gift iv th' people. Th' vice-prisidincy isn't next highest and the lowest. It isn't a crime exactly. Mister Dooley also took note of the frivolous legend that a vice president lives on the hope that no man is immortal. "Some vice-prisidints," he remarked, "have been so anxious first prisidint's safety that they've had to be warned off the White House grounds."

Richard M. Nixon, vice president for eight years under Dwight D. Eisenhower, set a precedent for making the job vital and viable by working at it with great energy and zeal at Ike's direction. Yet Mr. Nixon has described the office as "a hollow shell —the most ill-conceived, poorly defined position in the American political system." America's first vice president John Adams called it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

The Constitution gave the office short shrift, and the new concepts of the job have been imposed by recent Presidents with a new understanding of the almost intolerable burdens of leadership in the world. Mr. Nixon, more than any previous vice president, was assigned a variety of tasks, overseas and at home. He attended Cabinet and National Security Council meetings and received top intelligence information.

He once estimated that 95 per cent of his time was spent on Executive Branch affairs. Mr.Johnson was equally privy to the inner workings of the Executive Branch under President Kennedy, and equally well informed. But while both men knew something about the processes of decision-making, neither could share in that last lonely and peculiarly personal agony, the decision itself. It was nevertheless important, as the Johnson transition showed, that the vice president in this nuclear world should be as fully prepared for the responsibility as humanly possible.

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