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History may wink at Palin

The VP role has been filled by a diverse lot. By that standard she may have what it takes.

By John Hughes / October 16, 2008

Provo, Utah

A few days ago, I was doing an interview with National Public Radio. The topic was the presidential election. But within seconds it was all about Sarah Palin, that winking-at-the-camera, "gosh darnit" hockey mom, and moose-hunting frontierswoman from Alaska. What the interviewer wanted to know was whether Sarah Palin in the White House might become Dick Cheney.

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In a few weeks, Governor Palin has exploded from Arctic oblivion to get the kind of buzz any Hollywood press agent would pay big money for. Her face leaps out from every newsstand. Late-night TV comics adore her. There are more Sarah impersonators than Elvis impersonators.

Is she a short-term sensation? Not when she and Sen. Joe Biden pull in 73 million viewers for their TV debate and their principals get only 55 million for their first one, and 66 million for their second. Win or lose on Nov. 4, Sarah Palin is going to have an ongoing role in American politics.

Admittedly, if Tom Brokaw ever got to ask her the question (from Peggy of Amherst, N.H.) that he asked the presidential candidates, "What don't you know?" the honest answer might be "a lot." But she's a quick study and as vice president she would have a safety net around her of national security, economic, and political advisers.

Well, my interviewer wanted to know, hasn't Dick Cheney transformed the role of vice president, endowing it with enormous power and influence? Perhaps, but that's a unique and one-time deal. John McCain has a lot of knowledge and experience. Barack Obama runs his team with tight control. Neither, in the White House, seems likely to recruit a kind of éminence grise whispering from behind the presidential chair. Palin did make a pass at some enlarged role with Congress. Senator Biden was quick to assert that the Constitution specifically limits the vice presidential role. Either one would preside over the Senate, but not have a vote except as a tiebreaker.

There are some perks. There is a vice presidential mansion. And a salary of $221,000 a year, equal to that of the chief justice and speaker of the House of Representatives. But vice presidents are usually relegated to ceremonial chores such as representing the president at funerals of foreign dignitaries.