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Carlson: First test

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

The real test of a president is how well they make difficult decisions. Wisdom, insight, perspective, a sense of political necessity and public acceptability, are all critical factors.

The first insight one gets into the mind of the person seeking public endorsement for their pursuit of the highest office in the land is their choice of a running mate.

The simple fact is all too often the vice president has ascended to the presidency upon the death of the president. Sometimes the nation has benefitted as the vice president turns out to be surprisingly competent at holding and exercising judiciously the powers of the Office of the President.

For example, in the 20th century most presidential historians agree that Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson all turned in credible performances when called to center stage by the death of a president. Candidly, though, all four of those selections were based upon what were deemed at the time to be over-riding political concerns.

President William McKinley’s political mentor, Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, thought he and other GOP party bosses were putting the overly “progressive” Teddy out to pasture and out of the public mind. Imagine their shock when the young, ambitious, vain but brilliant Teddy inherited the Presidency upon the death of McKinley?

Twenty-two years later, “Silent Cal” became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding. The former governor of Massachusetts was considered by these same historians to have been a considerable improvement over the man he succeeded.

Truman of course surprised many by his ability to rise to the demands of the job. And LBJ, at last having reached his long-time goal, ushered through the Congress his “Great Society” legislation including the truly historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Each of these men won the office in their own right in the subsequent election.

Contrast those four with the four who succeeded to the presidency in the 19th century none of whom went on to be elected. Three of the four are viewed by presidential historians as “weak leaders,” the exception being John Tyler who set the correct precedents for a veep to succeed to and be able to exercise all the powers of the presidency.

One of the least likely people to become president was Chester A. Arthur, vice president at the time of James A. Garfield’s long and agonizing death (over three months) following his having been shot by a deranged office seeker on July 2, 1881. He finally succumbed more to his doctors’ inept care than anything else on Sept. 19, 1881.

Arthur had never held any elective office having filled only the chief patronage job in New York state, that of customs collector at the Port of New York. His craven loyalty to the rakish and monomaniac senior senator from that state, Roscoe Conkling, won him the post.

Thwarted in his own ambitions to be president by a truly spontaneous “draft Garfield” movement at the 1880 GOP convention, Conkling was able to force his underling onto the ticket.

Balancing the ticket or uniting the party is most often the excuse used in asking one to join a ticket. Seldom is the critical criterion of being able to step into the job and perform well applied.

Of the most recent presidents only Jimmy Carter, who selected Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, who chose Al Gore, and Ronald Reagan, who chose George H.W. Bush, included that criterion in making their selection.

Arizona Senator John McCain, in 2008, failed the first decision test miserably in the minds of millions with his selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Few believed she could step up and into the job.

So, who will Mitt Romney select? A guess is he will approach the decision in a business-like manner, much as a board chairman would go about finding a successor. Ability to handle the job will be critical. Electoral calculus, however, dictates he must take Ohio or Florida if he is to win. Fortunately, both states have competent, capable, bright, talented potential presidents.

Ohio offers Senator Rob Portman, a former congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Florida’s offering is NOT Senator Marco Rubio, despite what one may read elsewhere. He is out of step with the Latino community on the immigration issue and would not create inroads for Romney into the Hispanic vote.

A betting person might wager the Floridian Romney selects will be former Governor Jeb Bush. The more one thinks about it the more sense it makes.

Does President Obama make a counter-move? Yes, if his support with women voters starts to decline, a real long-shot bet would be he tells Joe Biden that he and Hillary are switching jobs.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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