It was just a year ago this month that freshly minted Democratic standard-bearer Bill Clinton set off on an eight-state bus tour and took his running mate, Al Gore, with him.
The six-day trip, marked by huge crowds and frequent touch football contests, established Gore as a major political asset who for the rest of the campaign came closer to playing the role of full political partner than any vice presidential candidate in recent memory.
The former Tennessee senator’s success on the hustings and his combination of youthful appeal and Washington savvy generated expectations that his role as Clinton’s understudy would break the pattern of frustration and isolation that has been the hallmark of the vice presidency for more than two centuries. But reality during the 45th vice president’s six months in office has been far removed from the informal magic of 1992’s bus caravan. And Gore’s profile has been dimmed by the same built-in limitations of his office that handcuffed his predecessors.
The tip-off came a few weeks after Inauguration Day with a New York Times/CBS poll which showed that the proportion of voters who knew too little about Gore to have an opinion about him rose from 14 % late in the election campaign to 44 % .
Now, while Gore is said by his admirers to have the President’s trust and confidence, in the firm of Clinton and Gore, Gore is clearly the junior partner, serving mainly as Clinton’s deputy.
Mindful of his circumstances, Gore himself has been known to refer occasionally to the description of his job by an earlier holder of the office, Thomas R. Marshall, who was Woodrow Wilson’s vice president. Marshall likened a vice president to a man suffering a cataleptic seizure. “He cannot speak, he cannot move. He suffers no pain. He is perfectly conscious of all that goes on. But he has no part in it.”
It is true that the opportunities for vice presidents have greatly increased in the past half century, since Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the powers and prestige of the presidency, and in the process enhanced the importance of the vice presidency as well. Of the 10 chief executives who have succeeded Roosevelt, five served first as vice president; the most recent example was George Bush.
Yet while they wait for opportunity to knock, nearly every vice president has known rejection and disappointment as frequent companions. Even Walter F. Mondale, who was credited with helping Jimmy Carter win the presidency in 1976 and was viewed as one of his most trusted advisers, almost resigned his post out of a sense of futility.
“I thought there was not much I could do to change things, so why break my health trying,” Mondale later told Yale University professor Steven M. Gillon, author of “The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy.”
To understand the inherent problems of the vice presidency it is necessary to go back to the early blueprints for the office. The vice president’s principal duty, the framers of the Constitution decided, would be nothing more than to preside over the Senate. John Adams, the first vice president, made the most of this responsibility by casting the deciding vote to break ties 29 times in eight years, a mark not since equaled.
But Adams had few illusions about the vice presidency. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he once complained.
To avoid unforeseen complications in the initial constitutional system of awarding the vice presidency to the runner-up in the competition for President, Congress adopted the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, which provided for separate election of vice president and President.
But by separating the vice presidential and presidential selection process, the 12th Amendment seemed to diminish the office even more. “The question will not be asked is he (a vice presidential prospect) capable?” Sen. Samuel White of Delaware predicted during the debate on the amendment, “But can he by his name, by his connexions (sic), by his wealth, by his local situation, by his influence or his intrigues best promote the election of President?”
Perhaps the most dramatic example of such supposedly practical considerations having decidedly impractical consequences was the case of Andrew Johnson, nominated by the Republicans in 1864 to run with Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Party leaders figured his Tennessee origins would broaden the appeal of the ticket.
But after Lincoln’s assassination made Johnson President and the war ended, his Southern sympathies brought him into bitter conflict with so-called Radical Republicans seeking to overturn the antebellum power structure in the South. He was the only U.S. President to be impeached, though he was narrowly acquitted of the charges against him.
Still, short-term political considerations continued to play a large role in vice presidential selection. In 1900, Republican Party bosses schemed to curb Theodore Roosevelt’s influence as governor of New York state by making him William McKinley’s vice president. In their anxiety to sidetrack the independent-minded T.R., the bosses disregarded McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hannah, who warned: “Don’t any of you realize that there is only one life between that madman and the presidency?”
Hannah’s fears turned out to be prophetic as Roosevelt soon succeeded the assassinated McKinley. But most historians would reject Hannah’s low opinion of Roosevelt, one of four presidents whose visages grace Mt. Rushmore.
Yet for all the twists and turns that have marked the course of the vice presidency during two turbulent centuries, one factor has remained constant--the vice president’s dependence on his President. Without the President’s good will, the vice president can accomplish little; and without the President’s good fortune, whatever ambitions the vice president cherishes will come to naught.
So far Gore can hardly complain about his treatment by his boss, who seems to take every opportunity to boost Gore’s spirits and his status. Joshing Gore at a Democratic gathering last spring, Clinton said: " . . . You know, sometimes when I hear him introduce me I really think he believes it.”
In a more serious vein, the President added: “When the record of this Administration is written, one thing will go down in the history books: There will never have been a vice president in the history of the Republic who played such a constructive role in helping to advance the public interest.”
But whatever the future may hold, Gore knows enough about the history of his job to concentrate on diligently discharging his ancillary duties. Besides his role in the Senate, where he cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Clinton’s controversial budget plan, and his assignment as honcho of the “performance review” of federal agencies intended to keep Clinton’s promise to “reinvent government,” Gore is often called upon to pull the President’s chestnuts out of the fires of controversy.
Thus earlier this month he was dispatched to the annual meeting of the NAACP, whose leaders still seethed with resentment over Clinton’s withdrawal of the nomination of C. Lani Guinier to be civil rights chief at the Justice Department to promise: “We intend to have a great attorney general for civil rights--one that you and we and the country can be proud of.”
And when it was announced that Gore would visit flood-stricken areas in the Midwest, he had to contend with questions about why the President did not go sooner himself, instead of first vacationing in Hawaii on his return from Japan. “He’s been in regular touch . . . and is directing the overall effort,” Gore said.
Though Gore unsuccessfully ran for the presidency once himself, and many believe he would like to do so again, he appears to have recognized the need to set these ambitions aside for now, along with the memories of last year’s triumphal bus tour.
“My principal role is that of a general adviser to the President,” Gore told reporters not long after taking office, “to help him in every way I can to be the best President our nation has ever had.”