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Must a VP Candidate Really Be Ready to Be President?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
It’s a predictable mantra as speculation mounts about the identity of the person who will occupy the number two spot on the 2012 GOP ticket: The most important thing for a VP selection is that it be someone who is prepared to be president.

At first glance, this rings true. But political history shows that someone who can energize a campaign is actually more important. The primary job of a Vice Presidential candidate is to deliver a highly motivated and effectively mobilized base, while at the same time doing relatively little harm. Joe Biden wasn’t effective because the country saw him as ready to be president—nor was Dan Quayle, but they did what they were supposed to do. They worked tirelessly to deliver votes.

Occasionally the country gets a chance to see someone who is ready to be president and a solid campaigner in the same skin—George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson come to mind. But this is rare—and there have been cases when VP candidates certainly had what it might take to be real presidents in waiting, only to fall glaringly short on the campaign side.

There is no better example of this than what happened 52 years ago.

The 1960 presidential race has been analyzed probably more than any other election in the past one hundred years. Three men – all who would eventually become president – occupied center stage: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.

But in a very real sense, it was the selection of a running mate by the Republicans that turned out to be a crucial, yet usually overlooked, part of the story. Of course, John Kennedy’s tapping of his rival Lyndon Johnson is an epic political tale that has been the substantial focus of attention, but it is what happened on the Republican side that year that should be examined afresh and anew by Mitt Romney and any and everyone on his team involved in vetting potential running mates.

The biggest VP crash-and-burn candidate in recent memory was a man by the name of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was Nixon’s running mate as they battled the Kennedy-Johnson Democratic ticket in 1960. Though conventional historical wisdom generally suggests that Kennedy beat Nixon because of Nixon’s first debate performance, or his failure to call Coretta Scott King, or vote-fraud shenanigans in Illinois, the real story may have much more to do with Mr. Lodge.

David Pietrusza, in his 2008 book, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon—The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies, described Mr. Lodge:

On the surface he seemed quite impressive – articulate, handsome, experienced, a true public servant from one of the nation’s most distinguished families. But in the long history of vice-presidential nominees Lodge – though scoring extremely well in abstract popularity polls – ranked as among the more puzzling of selections. He was unable to carry his home state, nearly powerless to affect any outcome in his region, a toxin to his party’s conservative base, and, ultimately, a drag upon the ticket in a region – the South – where real breakthroughs might be gained.

Lodge was described by chronicler Theodore White as, “like medicine – good for you, but hard to take.”

Why would Richard Nixon—a skilled political strategist—choose someone who would go over like a lead-balloon? The answer seems to be in his desire to base his decision on the qualifications to actually serve as president, more than political considerations such as campaign skills or the ability to help the ticket geographically and demographically.

Mr. Nixon also sensed that the crucial issue of the campaign was foreign policy – no doubt a reflection of his own interests. To try to go “toe to toe” with the Democrats on domestic issues would, he thought, give the natural advantage to his opponents. Lodge had, in fact, been a very effective U.N. Ambassador during the 1950s and had some good press recently. After the U-2 spy plane fiasco in May of 1960, he helped the U.S. regain the Cold War public relations initiative by highlighting the fact that the Soviets had been eavesdropping on our embassy in Moscow. A device was hidden inside a gift that had been given to our ambassador back in 1945 – a great seal of the United States carved in wood.

Yet, the choice of a running mate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy’s home state, and, in fact, of someone who had already been soundly beaten by Kennedy in a senate race eight years earlier, seems in retrospect rather curious.

In contrast to Richard Nixon’s energetic fifty-state marathon, Lodge’s hatred for the nuts and bolts of press-the-flesh campaigning translated into a lackluster performance. He took long naps after lunch, refused evening appearances, and regularly canceled those scheduled in the afternoon. One politico complained, “we didn’t mind him having a nap in the afternoon, but why did he have to put on his pajamas?”

Nixon had well-known problems with television that year, but Lodge’s work before the camera was far worse – the only redemption being that much of it never saw the light of day. During one of many attempts to produce shows or spots, he botched his delivery so badly that several expensive hours worth of work had to be completely scrapped.

Henry Cabot Lodge was a significant drag on the ticket. And as the campaign reached the end, he gathered his team a few days before the election to prepare a statement. Margery Petersen, a Nixon secretary, was asked to type it up. She later recalled: “When I saw it, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a concession statement! I refused to type it.”

The fact is that the most effective running mates have not been people who instantly resonated with voters as presidential. On the contrary, the best of the lot have been good team players, hard campaigners, and politicians who understood that it wasn’t about them. They balanced, complimented, and did their best to help the person in the top spot to win. Whether or not a person who steps from some other duty to run for vice president is prepared at that moment for the actual presidency is not the real issue.

Just read any biography of Harry Truman.

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