Clinton and the backseat

One of the more fascinating rites of our constitutional democracy is the transfer of political leadership from the incumbent president to the incumbent vice president. That has happened four times in the past 40 years.

Ideally, it should work like a smooth rocket launch. The booster provides propulsion and then drops off. Yet, because of strong egos and sometimes strained relationships, the transfer is usually attended by a certain amount of tension.

President Eisenhower is remembered in history for his antipathy to Vice President Richard Nixon. Having come so close to dropping him from the 1952 ticket because of a "slush fund" allegation, Eisenhower was reluctant to delegate responsibilities to him during their two terms together. In 1960, he tried to derail Nixon's nomination to the presidency.

Asked at a news conference in August of some contribution that Nixon had made, the president irately replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember." Later, he told a biographer that he found "some lack of warmth" in his vice president.

The president attended the Republican convention in Chicago only for the opening-day "Thank You, Ike" session, and sent a telegram of congratulations when Nixon was nominated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, having decided not to seek reelection, stayed away from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago altogether. But, from his ranch in Texas, he exerted enormous pressure on Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey not to budge from the hawkish White House position on the Vietnam War, threatening a drying-up of campaign funds.

The loyal Humphrey extolled Johnson in his acceptance speech. The contemptuous Johnson telegraphed an endorsement two weeks later.

In 1988, there was tension between President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush over issues like the Iran-contra scandal. Mr. Reagan gave a brief endorsement of his eight-year companion in a speech to a Republican fundraising dinner. It sounded so perfunctory that the White House next day represented the president as "mortified" that his endorsement had been taken as "lukewarm."

President Clinton's problem in the rite of passage wasn't any particular discord with Vice President Gore, but that he does not play second fiddle very well. Mr. Clinton was presumably trying to help his No. 2 when, four days before the Los Angeles convention, he told evangelical ministers in Illinois that Mr. Gore should not be blamed for Clinton's "mistakes."

That only served to keep the president front and center in the media, diverting attention from the nominee. His appearances over the ensuing weekend at fundraisers for his library and his wife's Senate race gave him further exposure - at Gore's expense. And so, on to the convention, where Clinton offered strong praise for Gore amid lavish praise for his own record.

Finally, on Tuesday, the president ceremoniously passed the torch to Gore in Monroe, Mich., with a six-minute speech - possibly the shortest of his career. It must have been a bittersweet experience.

Unlike Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Reagan, Clinton does not have a problem of ambivalent feelings about his co-pilot taking off on his solo flight. Clinton's problem seems simply to be a constitutional inability to take a back seat.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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