CONWAY: A warm bucket of picks

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We consulted Jeremy Lott, author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency,” for some historical perspective on this year’s unusually consequential picks. As Mr. Lott points out, the vice presidency ended up shaping a large part of 20th-century America the last time the field was open as widely as this year’s. There is reason to think that one of this year’s picks could end up looming large also. So, at least this time around, the office may well be worth more than a “warm bucket of spit,” or whatever it was that John Nance Garner called it.

TWT: Who is John McCain’s most electorally advantageous pick?

JL: Pick a vice president to win a state or send a message. If he wants to prove that he’s a serious reformer whom conservatives should back, he should do something crazy and put Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn on the ticket. If he is more interested in winning a state, he should get a running mate who can deliver Ohio or make Barack Obama fight like the devil to hold on to Pennsylvania.

TWT: What do the historical trends you encountered writing “The Warm Bucket Brigade” suggest about the 2008 cycle? What year does this cycle most resemble?

JL: In some sense, we can thank Vice President Dick Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition for blowing this race wide open. This year is the first election since 1952 where you don’t have an incumbent president or vice president running for office. Of course, the 1952 election gave us Richard Nixon, who ran in five national elections over 20 years and tried to drum up a “Draft Nixon” campaign the time he wasn’t on the ballot.

TWT: How much more do the vice presidential picks matter this year than most?

JL: Very likely one of the running mates this time will end up on the top of the ticket in the next election. While it isn’t likely that they’ll have the staying power of a Nixon, you never know. Also, we haven’t lost a president in a while and one shouldn’t expect that luck to hold forever.

TWT: To borrow from Fitzgerald, the politically ambitious are different than you and me. Why would a Mitt Romney settle for the vice presidency, the quintessential No. 2?

JL: When I do talk radio, I usually ask callers to guess how many vice presidents went on to become president. They guess five, six, eight tops. The real number is 14, almost exactly a third of our 43 presidents. When I give them the real number it shocks people. It shocked me when I first figured it out. We’re taught that the vice presidency is this puny, insignificant office, but it’s played a major role in shaping the country’s political history.

TWT: Who was the best vice president in American history and why?

JL: There are so many different ways you can take that question! My favorite vice president who went on to become president was Calvin Coolidge, with Thomas Jefferson a close second.

For sheer entertainment value as veep qua veep, I nominate Richard Nixon, especially for the time that he was assaulted and almost torn limb from limb in Venezuela. The U.S. government almost invaded the country to get him out in a planned military action that was named I am not making this up Operation Poor Richard.

Then there was John Tyler, the first veep to become president upon the death of the office holder, when Old Tippecanoe (William Henry Harrison) died after only a month on the job. He didn’t have any examples to look to, and the Constitution wasn’t all that clear on the rules of succession, so he had to make it up as he went along.

TWT: How about worst vice president?

JL: For worst VPs, I’d score it a tie between Aaron Burr and Lyndon Johnson. Burr intentionally shot rival Alexander Hamilton while in office and was later tried for treason. Johnson escalated our involvement in Indochina into the Vietnam War, viciously smeared Barry Goldwater and created an alphabet soup of new government programs.

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