Page last updated at 08:39 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 09:39 UK

Washington diary: Veepstakes

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

I have returned from my extended European-style summer holidays, my mind cleansed, my body rested and my political antennae thoroughly blunted by an excess of sloth and rich food.

Barack Obama (L) and John McCain
Who they pick will tell us something about the candidates' self-image

Sadly I cannot even claim that I was blissfully unaware of the political meandering inside the Beltway.

Thanks to my accursed BlackBerry I was getting personalised emails from Barack Obama and John McCain while poolside in Tuscany or panting up the lower slopes of Mont Blanc.

The candidates are omnipresent, always looking over one's shoulder.

But despite the intimate urgency of their messages ("Dear Matt... We are a movement... ") their calls to attention were as faint as cow-bells in a distant valley.

From thousands of miles away the feverish discussion about the wisdom of Mr Obama's Hawaiian holiday or Mr McCain's attacks against the Democrat's unwillingness to visit injured troops while in Germany seems so absurd it must be allegorical.

The campaigns are surely talking about something far more substantial.

We just have yet to figure out what it is.

'Insignificant office'

So here I am back home slap-bang in the middle of Veep week, a summer ritual that never fails to baffle me.

Consider the strangeness of the office which was even reviled by its first incumbent.

John Adams lamented that "My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Being vice-president is a bit like the fast-track check-in desk at airports - it is a potential short-cut to the final destination

Others have been less grandiloquent.

The most famous quote about the vice-presidency declared that the "job isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit". (There is a lingering discussion on the Internet as to whether the bodily fluid in the original quote was in fact piss.)

The most interesting thing about the quote is that it is far more well-known than the vice-president who made it - John Nance Garner, one of FDR's three vice-presidents said it to Lyndon Johnson just before he was picked by JFK as his running mate.

LBJ is one of the few vice-presidents who demonstrated the merits of the job.

First, as a veteran Texan senator, his nomination may have helped to deliver the Lone Star State and thus the White House for JFK.

To my mind, there are no other clear-cut examples of a geographical balancing of the ticket working in a candidate's favour.

Secondly, LBJ did exactly what vice-presidents are supposed to do: he resolutely failed to overshadow his boss while he was alive, but slipped seamlessly into his shoes once he had been slain.

Thirdly, he used the incumbency of the office foisted on him by tragedy to run successfully for re-election in 1964.

Fast track

In US history, nine former vice-presidents have gone on to be elected to the top job in their own right.

It worked for George HW Bush in 1988.

It did not work for Al Gore in 2000.

But the statistical chances of getting into the Oval Office are much greater if you are a Veep than if you are a senator or a governor.

That makes it a bit like the fast-track check-in desk at airports - it is a potential short-cut to the final destination.

The trickiest question is about the job itself.

Other than waiting in the wings of destiny or adorning a candidate's ticket what do vice-presidents actually DO?

President Lyndon Johnson (File Picture)
Lyndon Johnson was a very effective vice-president

And how much power are they supposed to wield?

Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were more influential than their husbands' vice-presidents.

Dick Cheney did not fall into that category.

Arguably the most powerful "Vice" in history he has been widely mistrusted as an eminence grise, pulling the strings from the undisclosed location of unaccountable executive power.

The vice-president has an unenviable balancing act.

He needs to be plausible enough to inherit the throne when it is empty without ever overshadowing it while it is still occupied.


During the campaign, the benefits of a Veep are also questionable.

There is little if any evidence that a vice-presidential pick can make or break a Presidency.

The vapid Dan Quayle failed to sink George Bush's bid in 1988.

The handsome and cerebral Al Gore did not add much to Bill Clinton's run in 1992 and then went on to lose his own state of Tennessee in 2000.

If anything, the Veepstakes - which will be settled in the coming days by both Democrats and Republicans - will be interesting for what they tell us about the candidates and their own perceptions.

Will John McCain choose a youthful-looking, robust fellow who knows about the economy and has impeccable conservative credentials?

In that case Mitt Romney is the obvious name.

Will Barack Obama give the nod to Senator Joe Biden, who can tell the difference between Shia and Sunni and bite the opposition's ankles if needed?

Or will he perhaps chose Evan Bayh, the senator and former governor of Indiana who is as controversial as garden furniture but can, one presumes, deliver a much-needed swing state.

We will know by next week.

The BlackBerries will buzz like bumble bees in mating season and then we will need to be reminded again in October why any of it mattered.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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