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.
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.
During my time in the Reagan administration, three Russian leaders (Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko) died in fairly quick succession. Bush the elder, then vice president, was tapped by President Reagan to represent the United States during those long icy funeral services in Moscow's Red Square. Secretary of State George Shultz was assigned to go along, with some of his senior staff.
But on one occasion the vice president was in Africa, clad in tropical garb. The notice was so short that he could not return to Washington. Accordingly it was arranged that Vice President Bush would meet us in Europe. Curious reporters are always eager to know the content of classified cables going back and forth on such occasions. Little did they know that much of the vice president's cable traffic to the secretary of State was concerned with the need to extract long johns and winter woollies from drawers in the vice presidential bedroom, and to be sure to bring them with us.
Palin could handle the vice presidential chores with aplomb. Neither she nor Biden would bring embarrassment to the office. However, I believe neither would acquire the kind of power that President Bush has permitted Vice President Cheney.
The more important question is how she, or Biden, would perform in the presidency if the need should arise. In one sense, the presidency is a lonely burden. In another sense, the presidency is cluttered, with advisers and senior staffers and cabinet ministers who can lay out the options and warn of the consequences. There is no shortage of advice. But the president must make the tough, ultimate decisions. Many presidents have also turned to a higher power for guidance at such times.
The United States has had presidents of diverse qualities. Some were astute politicians; others possessed scholarly wisdom or military prowess. Common sense and integrity should be obligatory for all. Harry Truman was catapulted into the presidency with low expectations. He made momentous decisions of wisdom and import for his country. Ronald Reagan was similarly greeted by some elitists as a president of little promise, yet proved to be numbered among the greatest of them.
Sarah Palin has already written a chapter in the history of American politics. She may not be through yet.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration. He is currently a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.