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Precedents, Vice Presidents—and Super-Tickets

It is the perennial irony of presidential campaigns that selecting a running mate proves both so crucial to a specific campaign moment and, almost inevitably, so excruciating to the nation.

The task remains, for historians, as always, to unearth precedents. Have similar strategies transpired? Did they triumph or fail? Why, or, why not? And do today’s circumstances alter the entire equation?

We have already witnessed uncannily broad similarities between the exhausting Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton rivalry and 1960’s John F. Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson slugfest. Both races featured two United States senators. More significantly, each highlighted historic competing versions of identity politics. Senator Obama demonstrated that an African-American might viably contend for the presidency. Senator Clinton less successfully argued for a woman’s chances. In 1960, not only did Roman Catholic JFK have something to prove, so did Texan LBJ: that nearly a century following the Civil War a son of the Confederacy might capture a major party nomination.

“Johnson,” JFK would later say, “had to prove that a Southerner could win in the North, just as I had to prove a Catholic could win in heavily Protestant states. Could you imagine me, having entered no primaries trying to tell the leaders that being a Catholic was no handicap? When Lyndon said he could win in the North, but could offer no concrete evidence, his claims couldn’t be taken seri­ously.”

Beyond that JFK was the handsome, charismatic (yet stylistically cool) senate outsider. LBJ was the established party leader who might have carried the day if Washington Democratic warhorses had their way. Instead, JFK took his case to the people—and LBJ took his lumps.

The parallels are pretty obvious. There are more. JFK, nomination secured, still required southern and Protestant votes in the general election. Dixie had been listing Republican, and with an Irish Papist now the Democratic standard bearer, it might topple yet further into the GOP camp. JFK recognized he needed LBJ on board to stabilize his vulnerable southern flank. Still, he had grown to resent Johnson. Worse, he had lost respect for him. Nonetheless, in the dim morning hours of JFK’s convention victory, out of grudging, calculating courtesy, he insincerely offered Johnson the second slot. Lyndon stunned Kennedy by accepting it. “Power is,” LBJ would rationalize to disoriented allies, “where power goes.”

“The idea that [JFK would] go down to offer him the nomination in hopes that he’d take the nomination is not true,” Robert Kennedy once confessed, “ . . . he thought that he should offer him the nomination; because there were enough indications from others that he wanted to be offered the nomination, . . . but he never dreamt that there was a chance in the world that he would accept it.”

JFK, buffeted by angry party liberals and his own significant doubts, instantly, and obviously, regretted his action—as did LBJ. Yet, it was Johnson who carried crucial Texas for JFK—and may have saved Louisiana and South Carolina for him as well. This unlikely, awkward gesture, ultimately carried both men to the White House.

In 2008 Barack Obama recoiled from the super-ticket option, opting instead for the original Kennedy model, one that only fate delivered JFK from: a safe, sane, boring, pointless selection. In 1960 JFK had originally offered the second slot to his lackluster former rival, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington—a Scrantonless Joe Biden. That same year Richard Nixon also opted for terminal blandness, selecting patrician United Nations ambassador (and former Massachusetts United States senator) Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate. Nixon (at least that year), nonetheless, recognized the value of super-tickets. His first choice had been upstart New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who might very well have delivered the Empire State’s 45 electoral votes to the GOP, but the obstreperously liberal Rocky emphatically ruled himself out.

The McCain-Palin 2008 phenomenon seems without precedent or parallel: a super-ticket featuring a running mate hitherto virtually unknown to the electoral mass market. Yet, there remains one starling similarity: to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 selection of 39-year old United States Senator Richard Nixon. Myriad differences, of course, exist between the Nixon and Sarah Palin picks, but one significant similarity emerges. Almost immediately, unprecedented negative publicity endangered Nixon’s place on the ticket, indeed, his very career. Regarding Nixon, Ike proved immeasurably less supportive than John McCain did regarding Governor Palin, but in both instances the embattled youthful veep candidates needed to present their cases to the public—forcefully and fast. Nixon’s situation (gossamer-thin, but highly damaging, allegations of a fat-cat-funded personal “slush fund”) necessitated his famed September 1952 “Checkers speech”—dramatically delivered before 58 million viewers, until then, television’s largest audience.

In thirty minutes Nixon laid bare his entire financial structure—his assets, his debts, his GI term life insurance policy, his 1950 Oldsmobile. It was not an impressive or lucrative balance sheet. He had certainly not enriched himself at the public trough, and he had not—“not one cent”—used the fund for personal expenses.

And with a dig at Truman administration mink coat-driven scandals, he added, “Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”

Nixon revealed one gift his family had received: “It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Trisha, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know they, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

Nixon, nonetheless, believed he had failed, sobbing when he had finished, but sobbing sympathetically with him was the TV crew around him—and the nation. “The telephone,” Nixon television advisor Ted Rogers shouted to Nixon as he left the stage, “is lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Nixon, like Sarah Palin at 2008’s GOP convention, not only rallied the Republican base around him, he shocked a hostile political and journalistic establishment by drawing Middle America to his side.

An unlikely super-ticket was created in 1952—as it would be in 1960—and, yes, again in 2008.