SOMETHING simply must be done about the way our vice presidents are picked. No matter that Dan Quayle might really have the stuff to make a capable president. What does matter is the widespread perception that Mr. Quayle's credentials are weak and that George Bush, for reasons that elude most people, selected a perceived lightweight for his running mate. This has suddenly become very relevant. The president's health problem has thrown a spotlight of public concern on the man who would be his successor.
I'm one of the few observers who think that Quayle is receiving a bad rap from the media and his Democratic critics. His colleagues say he was a reasonably good senator. As a vice president he's performed well as the administration's chief liaison to Congress. And he's made some well-thought-out speeches recently on foreign and domestic affairs which could be cited as evidence of a man who is growing in office. But the press has barely noted them.
I recently sat beside Quayle for more than four hours at the Gridiron banquet. Once again he showed how well-informed he is on the issues of the day - a knowledge he had demonstrated to my satisfaction at a Monitor breakfast not too long after he took office.
I liked his modesty. This is an Indiana boy who has never forgotten the advice most youngsters in that state receive from parents and friends: ``Never get too big for your britches.'' Some readers might say, probably with a little contempt, ``Quayle should be modest; he has a lot to be modest about.''
It's the rich-kid, C-student, avid golfer, war-avoider image of Dan Quayle that evokes such a negative response. His boyish good looks only reinforce the impression that he's too young and inexperienced for the White House. And he has a rather tentative way of speaking that, frankly, doesn't sound very presidential.
Having argued that Quayle might have the stuff to make an acceptable president, I have to say that his selection by Mr. Bush in 1988 still gives me trouble. The president must be faulted for not picking a running mate whose credentials for the No. 2 spot were more apparent.
Bush has said many times he chose a capable man, someone in whom he has full confidence. But the president has a much bigger responsibility: picking a running mate who would have the full confidence of the American people. Bush should have asked himself, ``Will Dan Quayle be accepted by the public as a worthy possible successor should something happen to me?''
Maybe Bush thought Quayle would be able to gain public favor. If so, he has been proved wrong. After watching Quayle's performance for more than two years, the public remains doubtful about his ability to be an effective president.
The way vice presidents are selected is wrong. Bush selected Quayle because he was from the GOP conservative wing and his youth would be helpful. ``Balancing the ticket,'' it is called. It's a process that has produced Harry Truman and George Bush. But it also brought forth Henry Wallace and Spiro Agnew.
Adlai Stevenson was on to something back in 1956 when he ``opened'' the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to the selection of his running mate. He didn't handpick anyone. He simply went to the podium and said he would ask the delegates to make up their own minds for the No. 2 slot on the ticket.
A genuine campaign for the vice presidency then took place at the convention. Estes Kefauver, John Kennedy, and others put up a spirited battle for the hearts and minds of the delegates. Stevenson, already nominated, scrupulously avoided even whispering that he had a favorite.
Estes Kefauver edged out Kennedy for the No. 2 spot. Kefauver had won primaries and come close to beating Stevenson for No. 1. He was an experienced senator. And he had proved he was popular. It was a good choice.
Let's open up the conventions and let the delegates pick the running mates. Under those circumstances, Quayle would never have been selected.