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Governor Perry’s Vice-Presidential Mistake

Photo of Joel Goldsteinby Joel K. Goldstein on Jul 30, 2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently denied any interest in being vice president, and that’s understandable.  To be taken seriously, a presidential contender must squelch talk that he or she is really targeting the second spot.  
But when he invoked fellow Texan John Nance Garner's famous putdown of the vice presidency, Perry revealed ignorance of more than 60 years of American political history.  Perry suggested that Cactus Jack, Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, "had a pretty good handle" on the vice presidency when he disparaged the office as "not worth a bucket of warm piss."  Perry also claimed that being governor is a step up from the nation's second job.  
But Garner's pithy comment no longer describes the vice presidency.  
The office effectively moved from a legislative to an executive position during the vice presidency of Richard Nixon, and Nixon used the political advantages of his position to nearly win the presidency in 1960.  His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To be sure, Johnson often made life difficult for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, yet Humphrey, too, almost won the presidency in 1968, narrowly losing to former Vice President Nixon. Less than six years later, Nixon's second vice president, Gerald R. Ford, became president after about nine months in the second job.
Beginning with the term of Walter F. Mondale in 1977, the vice presidency was converted from a position to provide for presidential succession into a robust governmental institution.  President Jimmy Carter and Mondale restructured the office to make the vice president a principal presidential adviser and troubleshooter, and Carter gave Mondale the resources he needed to succeed in that position.  Mondale made substantial contributions to Carter's administration and created a model that has guided the work of vice presidents since then.
Mondale's successor and Perry's fellow Texan, George H. W. Bush, overcame misgivings of close Ronald Reagan associates to become a valued presidential adviser and effective diplomat.  Bush also succeeded in winning the presidency while vice president, an accomplishment that had eluded Nixon and Humphrey and indeed every vice president after Martin Van Buren in 1836.  Dan Quayle met with Bush regularly and chaired the competitiveness council to reduce government regulation of industry.  Like Mondale, Al Gore was a close presidential adviser and handled a number of important portfolios, including the Reinventing Government initiative, environment projects, and bilateral commissions with Russia, Egypt and South Africa.
Perry's own predecessor as Texas governor, George W. Bush, allowed the vice presidency to reach new levels of influence.  His vice president, Dick Cheney, was something of a chief operating officer for much of the executive branch during their first term.  Cheney took on the job, not as a stepping stone to the presidency, but because he saw value in being vice president, and as Bush's vice president he played a far more significant role than did Perry as Bush's lieutenant governor, a period of Perry's public service that gets little mention in his official biography.
The current vice president, Joe Biden, has continued the development of the office.  He has played an important advising role and has assumed responsibility for a range of important initiatives, including implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, chairing the Middle Class Task Force, handling the disengagement from Iraq, and cutting governmental waste.  President Barack Obama has used him to negotiate major legislative initiatives and has sent him on diplomatic missions to the world's hot spots.
Contrary to Perry's innuendo, the vice presidency is now a position in which an able public servant can contribute in important ways to addressing national and international problems.  The position gives the president the advice of an experienced national political leader and allows the government to deal with challenges beyond those the president's schedule allows.
Since 1976 many able political leaders have aspired to the vice presidency, including Edmund S. Muskie, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Lloyd Bentsen, Dick Gephardt, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and others.
It's not surprising that Gov. Perry sees vice-presidential speculation as a threat to his presidential prospects.  But it's unfortunate that he perpetuates the myth that the vice presidency remains the office that Garner disparaged. History tells a different story. If the recent past is a guide, Perry could be among those who see the vice presidency as a valued job upgrade if his possible presidential campaign does not succeed.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a writer for the History News Service.