Sometime in the near future, John Kerry will select his vice-presidential running mate. He should be graded on that choice, for, since 9/11, the vice presidency has taken on an importance it simply never had before.

"Choose a running mate." We should look closely at that particular phrase, for it has been something more than just a choice of words. A running mate, historically, has been someone who was brought on board primarily to help the presidential candidate get elected -- usually by delivering a part of the country where the head of the ticket was weak.

This consideration was more important than the qualifications of the vice-presidential candidate or even whether the presidential and vice-presidential candidates were compatible. John F. Kennedy actually disliked Lyndon Johnson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt let his party leaders pick his running mate for his fourth term. Rather than Harry Truman, Roosevelt would have preferred others closer ideologically to his New Deal. Johnson, during his own presidential run, was jealous of Hubert Humphrey's popularity among liberal Democrats but badly needed their votes.

Truman, incidentally, was kept out of the loop by FDR and was totally unprepared when Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The senator from Missouri had to learn on the job -- and quickly in a time of war and the tricky negotiations of an impending peace. That he went on to become one of our greatest presidents was more the nation's luck than FDR's foresight.

Indicating a new realization of the burden on the presidency and the increasing importance of the vice presidency, Presidents Clinton and Bush, both outsiders, picked, respectively, Al Gore and Dick Cheney for their Washington experience.

On the chance that the old tradition of ticket-balancing for geographical reasons is not dead, it is possible that Kerry might choose one of his recent primary rivals as his running mate. In other words, South Carolina's John Edwards or Gen. Wesley Clark should not be written off.

If that is Kerry's choice, any lingering enmity can be overcome once they are in office. In the short time Kennedy and Johnson were in office, no friendship developed between them, but when he suddenly assumed the presidency, Johnson, despite the Southern background that got him on the ticket, pushed through and strengthened Kennedy's nascent civil-rights agenda. And despite Johnson's bristly treatment of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey overrode his own feelings and remained loyal to his president's failed Vietnam policy so long that it cost him the election against Richard Nixon.

For most of our history, the possibility that the man chosen as the running mate would, with victory, become the vice president seemed actually to be secondary. The vice presidency was the most deprecated and ridiculed office in the federal government. The only constitutional duty given the VP was to preside over the Senate -- but without a vote, except in the case of a tie. Of course, with Congress, like the nation, so closely divided these days, that tie-breaking vote can be critical.

Our first vice president, John Adams, called the vice presidency "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

In recent times, the vice president's duties have been expanded. The National Security Act of 1947 made the vice president a member of the National Security Council, and increasingly he has been asked to share the president's heavy load, partly to keep himself as fully prepared as possible to take the helm.

Surely in the forefront of Kerry's thinking must be the new importance of the vice presidency. America is a very different country from that led by presidents prior to World War II -- a different country in a vastly different world. We can no longer afford to elect mere running mates to the second-highest office. In this increasingly dangerous post-9/11 world we live in, we had better be comfortable with the idea of him or her at the helm. These considerations are of such importance that a candidate's wish to "balance the ticket" must take a back seat. And in today's safety-conscious America, that might well win more votes than geography.

The Democrats and the nation await Kerry's decision.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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