Nobody has yet discovered what to do with the vice president. His only real duties are to attend funerals in far-off places abroad and to stand by for the only funeral he could enjoy. This isn't enough for an ambitious pol.
The first vice president was famously contemptuous of the office. "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived," John Adams said of it, and John Nance Garner, FDR's first vice president, echoed that with slightly more elegance, here sanitized: The office isn't worth "a pitcher of warm spit."
Nevertheless, when two governors, Charlie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and one former governor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, were invited to join John McCain for an audition and a barbecue at his ranch in Arizona this weekend, their bags were already packed, stuffed with extra socks and enough clean underwear to last the full three days.
The only other use for the office is to give pundits and hangers-on an opportunity to boldly speculate, wildly, as if they had the foggiest idea of what's going on in the heads of the nominees. It's harmless fun that only the credulous treat as if it means something.
"The politics of picking a vice president are constantly overstated," Richard Moe, who was Walter Mondale's chief of staff, told Al Hunt of Bloomberg News. "But the decision does tell us much about how that person will tend to govern and what his values are."
This doesn't explain why presidents have been so eager to discard their vice presidents once in office. Several modern presidents have not humiliated their vice presidents in public, and several modern vice presidents have even had useful things to do between foreign funerals. But usually not. Harry S. Truman, the third of FDR's vice presidents, rarely saw the president, even though FDR was seriously ill when Mr. Truman joined the ticket in the midst of war in 1944. When he became president in April the next year, he didn't even know the atomic bomb was in the works. He had to make the decision to drop it on Hiroshima four months later.
Presidential nominees try to balance the ticket, but balancing the ticket doesn't mean what it used to mean. Walter Mondale corrected sexual imbalance with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, but the Democrats were doomed that year, anyway. Geography was once important, but Bill Clinton took a running mate from an adjoining state. Ronald Reagan chose George H.W. Bush for ideological balance, only to establish a brief dynasty. Barack Obama will almost certainly choose a white man, unless he challenges two precedents by taking a white woman. He could invite Hillary Clinton to join him in the expectation that she will refuse, but he has to be wary. She might not.
An Obama-Hillary ticket would be everybody's worst nightmare, beginning with the ritual photograph of the running mates and their spouses on stage on the final night at the national convention, where Jimmy Carter chased a reluctant and bemused Teddy Kennedy around the podium, begging like a puppy for his hand. The spectacle of Barack, Michelle, Hillary and Bill standing with arms upraised would frighten the millions, hardly the second occasion for Michelle Obama to feel pride in her country.
John F. Kennedy survived a presidential primary campaign in 1960 rougher and tougher than the one this year; we were a tougher country then, rarely needing a mommy, a lawyer or a grief counselor when someone said something rude to us. He invited Lyndon B. Johnson to join him in the full expectation that he would say no. But LBJ, who had barely survived a heart attack, weary of the Senate and looking for something enabling him to sleep late when he felt like it, said yes. JFK tried to rescind the invitation, but couldn't.
He was the rare running mate who actually made a difference. When he dispatched Lady Bird to make a whistle-stop tour through the Confederacy to reassure Southerners not eager to embrace a Massachusetts Yankee, she assured a Kennedy victory. In return, the new president effectively told him he didn't have to drop dead. Just get lost. John Adams wouldn't have been surprised.