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Who Cares About the Vice President?

The VP used to be a bench-warmer called in to perform PR tasks. When did vice presidents become important political figures?
 
 
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Seems everyone's talking about prospective vice presidential candidates. But who cares about the vice president?

Go ahead and laugh but the VP view of the "founding fathers" wasn't far from the sentiment embedded in that question.

An afterthought in the construction of the Constitution, it was on Sept. 6, 1787 that America's powdered-wig wearin' Constitutional Convention approved Alexander Hamilton's proposal to create the office of the vice presidency, declaring that the Veep should be the runner-up in the race to be president.

That's how VPs were picked until the rules were changed to allow presidential nominees to pick their running mates, which has since been used as a way for candidates to garner more votes with a "more balanced" ticket.

The first two vice presidents had two different perspectives. John Adams famously quipped: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Jefferson wrote: "The second office in the government is honorable and easy; the first is but a splendid misery."

Is it a stretch to think Jefferson considered the vice presidency "honorable and easy" because, as Adams observed, it's "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived?"

As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, VPs were still considered of such little consequence that when Vice President Garret Augustus Hobart died in November of 1899, the office was left vacant, as it had been on ten previous occasions for periods ranging from several months to as long as four years. Don't you just love progress? We've gone from the marginal significance of the vice presidency to the shadowy co-presidency of Dick Cheney. And while Cheney is arguably the most powerful (and secretive) vice in U.S. history, the transformation of the office began long before he was officially embedded in the White House.

The first VP, John Adams, attended a Cabinet meeting in 1791; something no other VP did until 1918 -- the year President Wilson asked Vice President Marshall to preside over the Cabinet while he was off at the Paris Peace Conference.

The expanded role of the vice presidency took another leap when President Warren Harding invited his VP, Calvin Coolidge, to attend all Cabinet meetings.

But, it was Vice President Charles G. Dawes who, in refusing to attend Cabinet sessions, cautioned that by doing so, "the precedent might prove injurious to the country." (Did he foresee Cheney?)

The response to Dawes warning: precedent, schmecedent!

Eisenhower took it to the next level, directing Vice President Nixon to preside over Cabinet meetings in his absence instead of following precedent in which the Secretary of State presided.

JFK and LBJ kept the VP snowball rolling before handing it off to Carter and Reagan, both of whom further expanded the office. Bush and Clinton followed suit.

Then came the JFK expansion, making LBJ chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the head of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

Johnson kept the ball rolling when he became president, appointing Hubert H. Humphrey to lead his administration's anti-poverty and civil rights programs. Nixon followed up by putting Spiro T. Agnew in charge of promoting the administration's domestic policies with state and local officials.

Walter Mondale helped President Carter craft U.S. policy in South Africa and was at the forefront of Carter's effort to reorganize the U.S. intelligence community.

Vice President George H. W. Bush -- the first VP to serve as acting president (while President Reagan underwent surgery) -- ran the group of advisers that provided Reagan with recommendations on how to respond to foreign flare-ups.

Quayle, believe it or not, headed the National Space Council, while Gore was given a primary role in foreign affairs, environmental policy, and the taxpayer subsidized effort to hand over government communications research and technology to private profiteers.

(And they say government doesn't help create wealth. Tell that to all the entrepreneurs who have made a fortune using technology initially funded with taxpayer R & D money. Gore didn't invent the Internet but he did carry on the long-standing government tradition of giving taxpayer-subsidized research and technology over to private companies for "free" -- the kind of bottom-up transfer of wealth free-market purists like to pretend doesn't exist and never enters the hand-wringing discussion over government hand-outs. But I digress).

So here we are, coming off eight years of the Imperial Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney, which seems to have conditioned us into thinking the VP must be something more significant than a bench-warmer called in to do PR work like representing the White House at state dinners and funerals the President can't make or getting involved in First Spouse kinda stuff like reading to kindergartners in the "inner-city."

Not to understate the semi-importance of VP candidates (especially in Obama's unique case, given America's historical penchant for assassination, especially popular leaders labeled by racial politics as "black") but, isn't it more important to bring some focus to bear on Israel flirting with an attack on Iran?

An Israeli-Iranian war would undoubtedly draw in the U.S. military, putting over a 100,000 U.S. troops now stationed in Iraq in the middle of a mess that'll make the insurgency look like kiddie play; not to mention the potential for the needless death of even more innocents, fanning the flames of the self-fulfilling prophecy of Armageddon that millions of Bush supporters hope to speed up.

Memo to national news editors: We got into Iraq with cooked intelligence and escalating sanctions under the guise of "diplomacy." Fool us once, shame on them. Fool us twice and, never mind, shame -- say hello to zero credibility.

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and news editor with the Cape Cod Times.

 
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