IN his candidacy for the presidency in 1988, George Bush will have to confront not only the Democratic nominee but also history: No vice-president has captured the White House since Martin Van Buren in 1836, and only three have risen at the end of their terms. History, in sum, has been hard on No. 2 men. In the 19th century there were seven attempts to abolish the vice-presidency and two lengthy periods (1841-45 and 1865-69) when the absence of veeps appeared to do little harm to the political process.
Vice-presidents too often bore the stigma of being presidential wimps, which made their quest for the top post frustrating. One of the exceptions was the outspoken Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's No. 2, one of the most popular Americans in the early 1900s.
When Marshall was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, he reckoned that he would now have the ``opportunity to compare his fossilized life with the fossils of all ages.'' So Marshall simply tried to make the best of Washington, especially on the social circuit.
To be sure, in the last quarter century, presidents, notably beginning with John F. Kennedy, expressed their intentions to make the second position one with significant responsibilities. The dilemma is that the vice-presidency continues to reflect ``balancing'' the party ticket rather than the contemporary managerial emphasis on talent and delegated responsibility. The tension between leadership and loyalty has increased, especially as presidential candidates from Congress show greater freedom of political movement.
It is clear that vice-presidents have to establish their own identity, or else they run the risk of subjecting their White House bid to a great deal of chance, as Finley Peter Dunne's ``Mr. Dooley'' noted in 1906:
``All that his grateful counthry demands fr'm th' man that she has ilivated to this proud position ... is that he shall keep his opinyons to himsilf. An' so he whiles away th' pleasant hours ... an' whin he wakes up he is ayether in th' White House or in th' sthreet.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.