Forty years ago this summer, Richard Nixon wrestled with the same question that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama will answer in Minneapolis and Denver next month: Who is the best choice to be the running mate? Mr. Nixon's selection of Spiro Agnew, then a little-known governor of Maryland, carries a perilous lesson about choosing the political over the practical.
When Mr. Agnew rose to accept the Republican Party's vice presidential nomination in August 1968, he cited "the improbability of this moment." The selection dumbfounded the media, the party's establishment and Mr. Nixon's longtime aides. Mr. Agnew, a Baltimore County executive before becoming governor, had been a strong supporter of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during the primaries. He had done little to distinguish himself on the national stage during less than two years as governor.
Mr. Nixon, a two-term vice president in the 1950s, had carefully thought through the choice. Despite Mr. Agnew's lack of experience or policy knowledge, he allowed Mr. Nixon to compete for Southern votes against the Democrats and against an independent candidate, Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Mr. Agnew, Mr. Nixon wrote later, "fit the bill geographically, and as a political moderate he fit it philosophically."
Mr. Agnew's performance on the campaign trail signaled what was to come. He logged 60,000 miles crisscrossing the country but targeting especially audiences in the upper South. Mr. Agnew also took on an attack dog role, calling the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, "soft on Communism and soft on law and order." Mr. Agnew was also prone to verbal gaffes that highlighted his inexperience on the national stage. He once quipped, "When you've seen one slum, you've seen them all," and he called a Sun reporter of Asian heritage, Gene Oishi, a "fat Jap." The Washington Post compared him to a horse and said he was unfit to serve.
Mr. Agnew was able to turn the media's disdain to Republican advantage. He appealed to Mr. Nixon's famous "silent majority" that felt slighted by "effete" liberals, and stoked the growing backlash against the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements. Even though the Republican ticket failed to carry Maryland, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew broke open the once solidly Democratic South by winning Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and the border states of Kentucky and Missouri. Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew squeaked into the White House by less than 1 percent of the vote. The political choice of Mr. Agnew seemed adroit and certainly could have been a deciding factor in the outcome of the close election.
However, while Mr. Nixon calculated carefully the tactical benefits of Mr. Agnew as a running mate, he gave much less thought to the practical use of Mr. Agnew once in office. Lacking national stature before 1968, Mr. Agnew as vice president was relegated to largely the same role he played as the nominee. His alliterative speeches and diatribes against the media ("nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history") made national headlines and won points with the Republican base, but Mr. Agnew's insights were usually not solicited or taken very seriously in the substantive policy debates within the Nixon team.
The relationship eventually proved unsatisfying to both Mr. Agnew and the president. Mr. Agnew chafed at the perception of being irrelevant, while Mr. Nixon began to ponder Mr. Agnew's continued worth to his administration. By 1972, Mr. Nixon privately floated the possibility of replacing Mr. Agnew with Texas Gov. John B. Connally, then still a Democrat but an experienced hand at policymaking. A year later, Mr. Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to tax evasion.
The most successful vice presidents of the past generation (Walter F. Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) brought a combination of political tact, broad fluency in policy matters and depth of experience to the No. 2 position. Dick Cheney, on the other hand, brought policymaking credentials to balance George W. Bush's inexperience, but his often-belligerent personality proved a political liability in the end. Dan Quayle, meanwhile, posed just the opposite problem for George H.W. Bush: Although he was amiable, Mr. Quayle's lack of experience (and perceived lack of intelligence) meant he was never taken very seriously.Conventional wisdom in American politics holds that a nominee's vice presidential selection is the first significant judgment that the voters get from the candidates as they enter the final stretch of the campaign. As Senators Obama and McCain ponder a running mate, they would do well to weigh carefully the tactical and the practical benefits of their top choices for the No. 2 spot.
Voters, for their part, should demand that the presidential nominees think beyond November and reward the candidate who selects a running mate who adds both political and policy benefits to the ticket.
Charles J. Holden is a professor of history at St. Mary's College. Zach Messitte is vice provost for international programs and associate professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma.