IN 1984, WALTER Mondale made a spectacle of himself interviewing a procession of politically correct candidates for vice president. His choice of then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro proved less than felicitous.
One might have thought that after that object lesson, the affirmative action approach to picking vice presidents would be exhausted. But no, the great mentioners are at it again. Recently, Larry King asked three prominent Republicans how they would feel about a "Dole/Whitman" ticket. And Larry King is not alone. All of the major news weeklies and political talk shows are bandying the names of female Republicans for the second spot. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been mentioned too.
Why? Both women are skilled politicians with good heads on their shoulders. But both are quite new to the national scene. Why should New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman be considered presidential timber when more seasoned governors are not? Why isn't everyone talking about Michigan's John Engler? Or Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson?
Actually, those names do get floated in reference to the presidency -- but always with the assumption that those men may run for the top job. It's only when the vice presidency is being considered that the names of women come up.
Is this a form -- albeit an exalted one -- of condescension? The big boys run for president, but the little ladies get tapped for V.P.?
Moreover, it seems that Ms. Whitman and Ms. Hutchison are being suggested as possible vice presidential candidate only because they are women. Male office holders with comparable amounts of experience are not being touted for the vice presidency.
Senator Hutchison is in her first full term as a senator. She is intelligent and articulate. She won her seat by a 2-to-1 margin over her opponent and survived a politically motivated indictment. She's tough. But she has yet to make her mark on Washington or the nation. Conservative observers consider her solid but hardly a trailblazer. She has a reputation for being swayed by the last person to talk to her.
Gov. Christine Whitman gave a fine, measured speech in response to the president's State of the Union address. But her views on many of the most pressing issues of the day are at odds with the conservative bent of the new Republican Party.
Governor Whitman is a wealthy, noblesse oblige Republican -- somewhat in the tradition of George Bush. Adamantly pro-choice, she stirred conservative discontent in New Jersey when she appointed Linda Bowker, former president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women, as director of the Division on Women. According to Human Events, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, described Ms. Bowker as a "tireless warrior" and stood beside her during her swearing-in ceremony.
Ms. Whitman further alienated conservatives when she opposed budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, was dismayed to discover that Ms. Whitman agreed with former Gov. Jim Florio (whom she defeated) that a bill providing for sexual abstinence education in New Jersey schools should be vetoed.
When the great mentioning game is played, Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts is usually dismissed as too liberal on social issues. But Ms. Whitman is just as keen to see gays and lesbians get full protection under the civil rights laws as Mr. Weld.
Ms. Whitman told the Los Angeles Times recently that "I think the way the party presented its face at the convention in Houston really predetermined the election." In other words, she basically accepts the liberal worldview.
When the American Margaret Thatcher comes along, we'll know it. She will sweep all before her. No affirmative action will be required. Her sex will not be the most important qualification for president but almost an irrelevance. Until then, let's let the best man win.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.