Douglas Brinkley: "The vice president's ... more essential role"

Roundup: Historians' Take

From CNN's 'Live From...' (July 6 2004):

MILES O'BRIEN, ANCHOR: John Kerry's choice of John Edwards as his running mate is no big surprise. To many, Edwards is generally considered one of the most skilled campaigners in the Democratic field. But can he help cinch the deal for Kerry, and what are the historical precedents in all of this?

Douglas Brinkley is a presidential historian, director of the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans.

Professor Brinkley, good to have you back with us.


O'BRIEN: All right, first of all, first take on this one, will history treat this decision well?

BRINKLEY: Well, only time will tell, but certainly it makes a whole lot of sense. John Edwards is this year's flavor. Starting in February, he really picked up steam. He became sort of the number two Democratic behind John Edwards. He comes from a different geographic region. He's from the South, as you've been talking about. He's Baptist, Kerry's Catholic, there's a big age difference, but it makes for a pretty good combination.

So I think most core Democrats in the country are probably pleased with John Edwards as being the nominee.

O'BRIEN: Well, on a sultry summer day, we make a lot of these kinds of things, and people in the political class love talking about it, but I always hearken back to what John Nance Garner said about the office -- about equivalent to a warm pitcher of spit, or something like that. That might be cleaned up a little bit.

The point is, though, have times changed, and maybe perhaps has Dick Cheney, Al Gore -- have they changed the vice presidency such that these choices really matter to voters?

BRINKLEY: Well, John Nance Garner was one of the many vice presidents Franklin Roosevelt had. He used to change them every four years. So, as Garner said, sometimes the V.P. is like the spare tire in the automobile of government. He felt like a loose wheel.

In our modern culture, though, more and more the vice president's had I think a more essential role. It really began with Jimmy Carter bringing Walter Mondale into more, and you've seen every president since Carter having the vice president, I think, growing in stature, to the point now where some people feel that Dick Cheney is almost a prime minister, or running the office chief of staff in addition to being V.P.

And then when one looks at history, look how many great men become president by being vice president, meaning -- Theodore Roosevelt was simply McKinley's vice president. He came in under that assassination. And you had FDR dying and Truman coming in, or John F. Kennedy being shot and Johnson coming in. So it's clearly the quickest stepping stone to the White House.

O'BRIEN: A heartbeat way, as they say. Let's talk about -- you mentioned Jimmy Carter. Of course, in '76, he ran against Gerald Ford. The ticket was Ford and Dole, but perhaps we've all forgotten about a previous iteration of vice presidential Republican running mates for Ford.

BRINKLEY: Well, you know, Nelson Rockefeller was the V.P., and Ford dumped him in favor of Dole, and it turned out to be a terrible mistake. Because Daddy King, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s father was so powerful in the black community that he was going to stick with Rockefeller, because Rockefeller's money had been supporting all the black colleges, particularly the ones in Georgia.

And suddenly, when Rockefeller got dumped and Dole was on the ticket, Daddy King and a lot of black leaders said, you know what, we're going to back this one-term Georgia governor. And Carter had run as a redneck conservative in the South, wasn't trusted by the black community, but they trusted him more than they did with Bob Dole being added to the ticket. And, hence, it really solidified Carter's ability to be a Southerner that was carrying the black vote.

O'BRIEN: So, did Gerald Ford -- did this escape the Ford operation? Did they not see the significance of that move, perhaps? I mean, really, you could make a case the election might have turned right on that decision.

BRINKLEY: I think so. I'm writing a little book with the"New York Times" on Gerald Ford, and it's a very key moment. Gerald Ford himself would tell you that there's -- if he would have kept Rockefeller, he probably could have won. The selection of Dole turned out to be a disaster for him for this very reason.

You have to get into the racial politics of 1976 and what Carter's record had been up until that time, and understand that the Rockefeller family had been liberal Republicans from the Northeast who had been very, very generous to the civil rights movement.

O'BRIEN: All right. Final thought on, perhaps, vice presidents who have hurt the top of the ticket. Would you go along with the theory that Dan Quayle hurt the senior Bush?

BRINKLEY: There's absolutely on question about it. Dan Quayle was a disaster. Everybody, now, looking back at that election, realizes Quayle should have been dumped. He had become, whether rightfully or wrongfully, a public joke. He was fodder of comedians. Nobody took him serious. People didn't feel that he was a -- that could effectively be a commander in chief.

He has grown in stature, Dan Quayle, since back then, but he was fumbling so often that his name became synonymous with buffoonery. And the loyalty that President Bush showed to Quayle was really almost unimagined, and I think it cost him the presidency.

O'BRIEN: But people in America appreciate loyalty, don't they?

BRINKLEY: That's a line you've got to draw, and it's one that I think this president's clear that he's sticking with Dick Cheney at least right now, and loyalty is speaking very loudly, but there are many Republicans that'll tell you that he'd be better off with a Giuliani or a McCain or a Powell or a Rice or somebody who would be a more centrist candidate and bring the compassion back into Bush's conservatism....

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More Comments:

Mark Daniels - 7/7/2004

I meant to comment on the Brinkley/Goodwin interview.

Mark Daniels - 7/7/2004

I agree that Kerry chose Edwards in part to invest his campaign with a "vigor" it has been perceived to lack. I think that in doing so, he was also bowing to the activists of his party who saw things this way.

In that sense, it is a more conventional choice, not unlike FDR's decision to bow to organized labor in opting for Truman in '44 or Eisenhower's decision to stick with Nixon in '56 despite personal misgivings. Kerry allowed the party faithful to have their vice presidential pick.

Kerry's choice of Edwards also is conventional in that it perhaps takes geography into consideration more than "the demographics of the heart" that have characterized recent vice presidential choices. In this, I believe, Kerry is mistaken in his thinking: Edwards cannot deliver the South or even part of it. The Kerry campaign seems to recognize this: many of its representatives would only say that Edwards put the South--even Edwards' North Carolina--"in play."

It seems to me that Kerry needed to be more imaginative and savvy in his choice. He needed someone on the ticket that would help him break out of the red state/blue state stalemate that has, for several election cycles, seen both Republican and Democratic candidates energizing their bases while 50% of the American electorate doesn't vote. A candidate who helped him attract or get the attention of independent and Republican voters would have been helpful to Kerry.

Of course, that was the reason behind his apparent courtship of John McCain. But veep choices like Sam Nunn or even Joe Lieberman would have served him better with such an outreach.

McCain, by the way, would have ultimately been a bad choice for Kerry, in my judgment. Paraphrasing Howard Dean and others, McCain is a member of the Republican wing of the Republican Party, more conservative than the president when it comes to spending restraint and like TR, committed to reforms that will make the American political process and the free enterprise system work as intended. There are too many incompatibilities in their philosophies and voting records for Kerry and McCain to be on the same ticket. Besides, after the first blush of enthusiasm for McCain as Kerry's veep, the anger of hard-boiled Republicans would have been aroused and independents would have likely seen it as a shotgun marriage of convenience.

Before all the speculation about McCain joining Kerry on the Democratic Party ticket, I thought that Bush would have been wise to dump Cheney in favor of the Arizona senator. Cheney is the poster child for everything that is wrong with the Bush Administration. McCain would help Bush reach beyond the Republican base. But I don't see that happening. Bushes tend to dig in, even when it isn't in their own interest to do so.

At present, with or without Edwards, I think that Kerry is likely to beat Bush. The Bush Family seems to be afflicted with some version of the Adams Family (John and John Q., not John Astin and Carolyn Jones) penchant for political self-destruction.

I feel that this is apt to be a campaign in which neither candidate can do much to appreciably help themselves; they can only hurt themselves by blunders or perceived blunders. The next 118 days are likely to see repeated efforts by each campaign to goad the other candidate into such blunders or to portray the opposing candidate as a blunderer. I doubt that it's going to be terribly edifying.