Washington — While I waited in the lobby of the White House West Wing for an interview with Vice- President Bush, there was time for a little reflection. I had waited for vice-presidents before under similar circumstances, sometimes at the White House, sometimes in the Old Executive Office Building next door, or sometimes on planes or in hotels. And they were all different.
Richard Nixon was an activist vice-president, rushing around the United States, making the Democrats angry, and often making political remarks that did not seem to jibe with the approach of President Eisenhower.
Eisenhower clearly was unhappy on learning about Nixon and the secret slush fund from which he was benefitting. Some scholarly observers of those years now contend that Ike never forgave his vice-president for it and for the emotional appeal Nixon made in the Checkers speech. That performance evoked such a strong wave of public support that Ike was virtually unable to drop the young California congressman from the ticket.
Eisenhower came close to pushing Nixon aside for a different running mate in 1956. And he fell short of giving Nixon his all-out, active support in the 1960 campaign. This may have cost Nixon the election.
A few years later the talkative Hubert Humphrey was vice-president. He was so easy to interview. It was always fun to hear him hold forth endlessly on all sorts of subjects.
Then there was Spiro Agnew, the tall man with the serious mien and the sharply creased trousers. Nixon took him for his No. 2 man almost sight unseen. Nixon thought the Maryland governor would add geographical balance to the ticket. Also, Nixon liked the way Agnew had rebuked the black leaders in Baltimore for not doing more to try to quiet protests in the black community.
Agnew, as a vice-presidential candidate, soon was voicing some excessive views, calling Humphrey "squishy soft on communism" and making what was widely regarded as a racial slur.
Very soon, too, Vice-President Agnew became a virtual outcast from the administration; both he and his staff were at odds with the Nixon staff. So Agnew was used mainly for traveling abroad where, instead of remaining out of sight, he made presidential- sounding pronouncements, again irritating both Nixon and his staff.
When Agnew got into serious personal trouble, there was little moaning in the Nixon camp which, of course, was preoccupied with its own troubles, Watergate.
Then came Gerald Ford who, because of circumstances, had to act presidential from the moment he became vice-president. Because he was so widely perceived as the inevitably quick successor to a president who was on the ropes, Ford immediately had to deal with questions relating to major national matters. In that sense, Ford was never really vice-president.
Nelson Rockefeller was frustrated as vice- president. He felt he had been promised a partnership but instead turned out to be useless, excess baggage. Walter Mondale, on the other hand, made vice-presidential history by playing an important advisory role under Carter.
Now comes George Bush. He quickly informed this visitor that his role is modeled after that of Mondale's. He said the PResident is enabling him to make a "useful, substantive contribution." Then he added: "Unless I blow it."
By that, he said, he means that he will have to keep a low profile lest he overplay his hand and thus lose the friendship and confidence of the President without which no vice- president can do anything worthwhile.
Bush certainly kept hunkered down in my interview with him. He joshed a bit. He talked about his dog Fred. But mostly the Vice- President spoke of the "great opportunity" to help the President if he didn't "make a lot of waves."
If being a good vice-president is to know and keep your place, George Bush i s off to a promising start.