Beschloss on History of V-P Choices

Roundup: Historians' Take

From NPR's 'Morning Edition' (July 6 2004):


Any presidential candidate is hoping that his vice presidential choice will help him, either to win election or to govern later. To find out if candidates get that wish, we've called presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who's here in Washington.

Good morning.

Mr. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS (Presidential Historian): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: First the politics of this. Traditionally it's said you pick a vice president to balance to the ticket, to win a state, to win a region. Have they generally helped to do that?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: They did in the past. You know, in the old days before television, and at a time when, for instance, if you lived in a state like Georgia or Nebraska, you probably stayed there most of your life, probably would make sense to put a Georgian or a Nebraskan on the ticket if that was important. Nowadays you've got television and radio all across the country. It's hard to do it that way.

INSKEEP: Classic example: At the beginning of the television age, John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts and Lyndon Johnson from Texas.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And that was to take Texas, but was also to do something else, and that was unite that party. Lyndon Johnson had been the runner-up to John Kennedy, and also Johnson was someone who was considered to be less liberal than Kennedy was, and so from the moment that Johnson was chosen as vice president, Kennedy was no longer seen as necessarily this Northeastern liberal. He was at the head of a ticket that was not only ideologically more balanced, but also had the benefit of Johnson's long experience in the House and Senate.

INSKEEP: Oh, and that's happened a lot, hasn't it? I'm thinking of President Reagan and his vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Exactly, because when Reagan was nominated in 1980, what the polls showed was that one thing that led voters to be a little bit concerned about Reagan was that he had been governor of California for eight years, but did not have foreign policy experience, had not been in Washington. It was the time of the Cold War. You put George Bush, the elder, on that ticket, most of those doubts went right there.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned that people are not quite as parochial because of communications as they maybe used to be, and given that, can a vice presidential choice really help the ticket or hurt it, either one?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It sure can help, and probably the classic in recent times would be Bill Clinton choosing Al Gore in 1992. It went against all the conventional wisdom. They were both Southern, they were both Baptists, they were both young, they were ideologically moderate within the Democratic Party. No balance. But the point is that from the moment that Al Gore went on that ticket the 9th of July, 1992, people saw Bill Clinton in a different way. Clinton had had a rather hair-raising experience in the primaries. A lot of people knew him almost best for Gennifer Flowers and the draft controversy. But here you have Al Gore who comes onto the ticket, was respected in Washington, part of the establishment. From that moment on, Clinton was never behind.

INSKEEP: What do you think about John Kerry's pick, John Edwards?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: I think John Kerry hopes that what will happen to him was what happened to Bill Clinton in 1992, which is that it enhances the way that people see the top of the ticket. In this case, someone who can not only go after the Democratic base, but who's wonderful with crowds, you know, a wonderful speaker. I think John Kerry feels that by putting Edwards on the ticket, no one will any longer say that this is a choice for president and vice president that lacks excitement....

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