Choosing America's No. 2

How would Americans like to see a woman as the Republican candidate for vice-president of the Unitd States? It's reportedly one of the questions the Ronald Reagan campaigners will explore in a nationwide survey of voters' views on the vice-presidency. Maybe they recall former President Ford's runination on the 1976 campaign that, if given the opportunity again, he "might well" have "gambled" on Anne Armstrong to share the ticket.

The point is not whether a woman as such should be a candidate any more than a man as such should be. It is whether, all things being equal, the sex of the candidate should make any difference. It should not. Man or woman, what are the qualities that a vice-presidential candidate ought to have? Mr. Reagan may particularly want to know in view of the reaction against what seemed his futilely political choice of Senator Schweiker last time.

There is no better place to begin than the original intentions of the nation's founders. They did not have the electors vote for a vice-president. Rather, the electors voted only for president. And their second choice for president became vice-president, the obvious person to replace the president if need be.

Thus George Washington's vice-president was the great John Adams. John Adams's vice-president was the great Thomas Jefferson. And Thomas Jefferson's vice-president was, er. Aaron Burr; all right, the system wasn't perfect.

The 12th Amendment changed the procedure to provide for election of a vice-president who had been nominated as such. But what should not be changed is the qualification of the vice-president to be next in line for the presidency. A third of America's presidents began as vice-presidents, nine of them having to step in without election to undertake the top job.

Yet running mates tend to get chosen not so much for evident presidential capacities as for such reasons as "balancing the ticket" geographically or ideologically. This does not necessarily mean they don't have presidential capacities or won't develop them when the time comes, as Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman proved. But pristine potentiality, separate from political calculation, is unlikely to get the nod -- even though a presidential candidate has rarely received decisive election help from the geography of his running mate. In the last century, according to a historian of the subject, three winning candidates did need the electoral votes of the vice-presidential candidate's state; in this century, no vice-presidential candidate's state has swung an election.

President Carter won credit for choosing as his vice-president a man whom many had regarded as presidential timber in his own right, Senator Mondale. Despite reported setbacks for Mondale views within the administration, the vice-president this time around has been notably part of the team -- not an Alexander Throttlebottom among the tourists on a White House tour as in the old Broadway show. And not even a Richard Mentor Johnson, LEvi Parsons Morton, or Henry Wilson, to name a few actual vice-presidents who might as well be anonymous today.

President Ford won credit for choosing as his vice-president a man whom many considered more qualified than himself -- Nelson Rockefeller. Yet, when it came to running for election, Mr. Ford bowed to political considerations and picked Senator Dole. One of these considerations was acceptability to the Reagan camp, which now faces the question of choice itself.

The Reagan running mate, according to speculation, might be someone to reach toward the moderates ideologically and toward the East geographically, someone relatively young. The age factor really ought to be rejected, as many voters plainly are rejecting it. The record of post-World War II leadership abroad proves that three score and ten is no disqualification.

And Mr. Reagan could enhance his own appearance of presidential potentiality by selecting a running mate for reasons other than rank political calculation. Qualities of character, judgment, strength, fairness, knowledge, vision -- qualities also appropriate for a president -- ought to be the criteria. For a vice-president these need to be combined in a person with whom the president feels comfortable and in whose loyalty he can have no doubt. As we have said before, this loyalty is the contrary of yessing the boss; it is the willingness to lend the genuine support of speaking candidly and agreeing to disagree if necessary.

Proceeding on such a basis, any presidential candidate can help to bring the vice-president back to being, in effect, the nation's second choice for its highest office.

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