The hex on Paul Ryan
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The best morsel of political advice I can offer? If you catch even the faintest whisper that you might be nominated for the vice presidency, make for the hills. Run as fast as Paul Ryan pretends to. Your reputation depends on it. Maybe your sanity, too.
The veep nod befouls everything. It’s a cruel pivot. One minute, you’re a largely respected, minimally dissected public servant sitting on some harmless commission or tending to some humdrum state. The next, you’re attaching gratuitous vowels to unsuspecting carbohydrates (Dan Quayle), spraying your septuagenarian hunting buddy with birdshot (Dick Cheney), espying Vladimir Putin’s reared head in the Alaskan airspace (Sarah Palin) or suffering delusions of marathon grandeur (Ryan).
While the veep nod is only occasionally a springboard to the presidency, it’s almost always a trapdoor to mortification.
Look at Ryan. Mere weeks ago, he was as close to a matinee idol as a House Budget Committee could hope to produce, his crush on Ayn Rand noted in passing but his wonky earnestness taken on faith. Now he’s a veritable poster boy for hyperbole and hypocrisy, his record and words generating fresh headlines almost daily. At this pace, a truly fleet one, he’ll be on trial in The Hague by year’s end. Unless he’s moving into the residence at the Naval Observatory, which would be the worse fate for him by far.
Look at that residence’s current occupant, Joe Biden. Before he was visited by the giddy dream of the vice presidency, his habit of unfiltered utterances was considered endearing. Afterward, he was deemed “a clownish gasbag” and “a human IED,” to cite two phrases from this week’s cover story on him in New York magazine. IED is short for “improvised explosive device,” emphasis on the improvisation, and the story, by John Heilemann, is actually among Biden’s more flattering profiles.
The White House is regularly rapping his knuckles and he’s forever being dissed. You wouldn’t expect to encounter a rope line at a Virginia bakery with a name like Crumb and Get It, but when an advance team sought permission for Biden to stop there during a campaign swing in mid-August, the bakery’s owner declined to give it. No crumbs for the vice president.
And at the Democratic National Convention here this week, he’s been booted from the vice presidential nominee’s customary speaking slot Wednesday, when Bill Clinton will be the headliner instead. Biden is wedged in on Thursday, which is really President Barack Obama’s night.
The office of the vice presidency seems to addle many occupants, and that goes back centuries before Cheney. In Aaron Burr’s final year as the country’s third vice president, he killed Alexander Hamilton, his political rival, in a duel.
Thomas Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson, was utterly sidelined during the many months after a stroke left the president bedridden. The first lady ran the show. He felt so understandably marginalized in his job that he said: “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea. The other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again.”
FDR’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, famously characterized the job as not being worth “a warm bucket” of urine, which was euphemized in the retelling as “spit.” Hubert Humphrey saw his favor among liberals shredded by his loyalty to LBJ, who got us deeper and deeper into Vietnam.
But you don’t have to inhabit the vice presidency to be undone by it. The nomination suffices. The spell commences then.
It was cast on Joe Lieberman (the 2000 Democratic nominee), and a senator in good standing soon morphed into an exasperating political vagabond. It was cast in a much bigger way on John Edwards (the 2004 Democratic nominee), stoking his narcissism and recklessness to a point where he not only fathered a child with his mistress but coaxed a sycophantic aide to claim paternity.
And while the veep nod made Palin rich, it also has made her a laughingstock. Until a light as brutal as the one that comes with a coast-to-coast campaign is shined on you, no one’s aware of your pores or pockmarks. Or — back to Quayle — your inability to spell “potato.”
You endure almost as much scrutiny as the person on the top of the ticket, get only a dollop of the glory and, judging from recent years, aren’t likely to succeed him. That last happened with the election of the first George Bush in 1988.
The role of running mate is a curse masquerading as a compliment, a hex in red, white and blue drag. Taking it on represents the triumph of hope over Thomas Eagleton, Spiro Agnew and the words of Daniel Webster, who reputedly turned down the assignment in the mid-1800s with this explanation: “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.