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A misguided scheme to 'sweeten' the vice-presidency for Powell


WASHINGTON -- Some die-hards still disappointed over retired Gen. Colin Powell's decision not to seek the presidency or any other elective office next year have come up with a sweetener they hope might persuade him to change his mind.

They're wasting their time, because Mr. Powell has said his decision is irrevocable -- and because their idea is a bum one.

Wishful thinking

The wishful thinkers are suggesting that if the Republican presidential nominee, especially if he turns out to be front-running Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, would offer to make Mr. Powell not only his running mate but also secretary of state if they are elected, the retired general might bite.

Such a move, however, would tie the vice president down to line responsibilities, keep him entirely out of domestic affairs and conceivably open him to squabbles with other cabinet members -- not to mention the possibility of making him a sort of co-president, which no president in his right mind would tolerate.

In 1980, when Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan discussed with Gerald Ford the possibility of tapping the former president and vice president to be his second banana, the idea was labeled a "co-presidency," and when that prospect registered on Mr. Reagan, he quickly retreated.

If Mr. Powell had really wanted to get into the 1996 campaign in any capacity, there was plenty of reason for him to go after the presidency, not settle for the vice presidency.

Not since the time of Dwight D. Eisenhower has any other public figure had as much potential for successfully breaking into politics as a presidential candidate with no previous political experience.

Second banana

And if Mr. Powell was deterred by the chore of facing the rigors of a tough presidential primary fight in the Republican Party he has just joined, he could easily have sidestepped it by opting for the vice-presidential nomination without any sweetener.

The much-maligned second-banana job should have been particularly attractive to him in light of the fact that Senator Dole, if elected, would be 73 when sworn in and 77 at the end of a full term.

A stepping stone

For all the putdowns of the vice presidency, it should be remembered that five of the last 10 presidents have first served as vice president -- Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush.

And in eight of the last nine presidential elections, one or both of the major-party nominees had previously served as vice president. So there has been no better stepping stone to the presidency over the last 50 years.

Expanded role

Also, the functions of the office have been greatly expanded since the April day in 1945 when Truman learned he had become president without knowledge of the existence of the atomic bomb.

Eisenhower's and John F. Kennedy's vice presidents, Nixon and Johnson, were used extensively as foreign-policy emissaries.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he gave his vice president, Walter Mondale, an office near his own in the White House, consulting him regularly and keeping an open door for him to the Oval Office.

Quayle's access

President Reagan followed much the same procedure with his )) vice president, Mr. Bush, and even the much-abused Dan Quayle as vice president was given regular access to his president.

Mr. Quayle's erratic performance, first as candidate and then as vice president, created such uneasiness in the country that President Bush considered dumping him when he ran again in 1992.

Taking it seriously

And Democratic candidate Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore as his running mate was made, he indicated later, in part because of the contrast with Mr. Bush's choice of Mr. Quayle.

Picking Mr. Gore, he said, "made a statement to the American people about me. I took them seriously because I took the job [of vice president] seriously."

Clearly, the vice presidency is worth much more today than John Garner's "bucket of warm spit."

If Mr. Powell really wanted to serve, and have a convenient route to the presidency, he would need no additional sweetener.

HTC Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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