It can safely be assumed that John Edwards, in tonight’s vice-presidential debate, knows that Dick Cheney is no John Nance Garner.
Mr. Garner, as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, is said to have denigrated the largely ceremonial office he held as not being worth “a warm bucket of spit.”
Beyond dispute, political observers say, is that Mr. Cheney is the latest in a recent series of vice presidents who, beginning with Walter Mondale in 1977, have an office in the White House West Wing a few steps from the Oval Office and get time with their boss more or less whenever they want it. That gives them at least the potential for power and influence. The rest is up to them.
“The modern vice presidency is a very powerful office that bears no resemblance at all to the office 25 years ago,” said Frank Donatelli, a former Reagan White House political director.
Richard M. Nixon, as President Eisenhower’s vice president, established the office as politically relevant, but Mr. Mondale, as President Carter’s vice president, made it relevant for policy, said Les Francis, a senior aide in the Carter White House.
Mr. Donatelli agreed, noting that “while Nixon was Ike’s chief liaison to conservatives in the party, he didn’t contribute substance.”
“Before Mondale, veeps spent their time mostly waiting to see if the president died in office,” said Mr. Francis.
Most waited in vain. Only 14 vice presidents went on to hear “Hail to the Chief” played for them — through election, death, assassination or, in one case — resignation.
But for most of its history, the office has been the butt of jokes such as the story of two sons: one who went to sea and the other who became vice president. Neither was ever heard of again. Had not Mr. Garner so colorfully described his own office, no one would have heard of him again, either.
In the last quarter century, presidents have promoted their veeps as potential successors.
“Outgoing presidents came to see the election of vice president as a reaffirmation of their own presidency — as a referendum on their terms in the Oval Office,” said Republican consultant Craig Shirley.
Before that, presidents were sometimes cruelly dismissive of their vice presidents, who were chosen principally for geographical or ideological ticket balancing but not for anything of substance they might contribute.
Like others before him, Mr. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, had no office in the White House. “He had his office in the Old Executive Office Building and might as well have stayed in Baltimore for all the impact he had on Nixon administration policy,” said Mr. Donatelli.
In 1952, Mr. Nixon — who gained national fame as an anti-communist in the Alger Hiss trial — was chosen as Mr. Eisenhower’s vice president to cover Ike’s right flank with conservatives in the GOP. When the president was asked in 1956 what policy contribution Mr. Nixon had made during his first four years in office, Mr. Eisenhower answered: “Give me a week to think about it.”
Mr. Cheney is almost unique among vice presidents because, due to his history of heart disease, he has disclaimed any intention of using the office as a springboard to run for president. Yet, most observers agree, Mr. Cheney also exercises an unprecedented level of sway over administration policy.
“Cheney may well be the most powerful vice president ever in that he has more influence over the president than any other vice president has had — even though President Bush doesn’t always agree with him,” said Mr. Donatelli, the former White House aide who has close contacts with the current White House.