The Evolving Role Of The Vice President Scott Simon talks with vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein about why and how the role of the vice president has changed.

The Evolving Role Of The Vice President

The Evolving Role Of The Vice President

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Scott Simon talks with vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein about why and how the role of the vice president has changed.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Now that the Republican and Democratic Parties have all but nominated their candidates for president, the new parlor game, if people still have parlors, is guessing whom they'll ask to be their vice presidential running mates. What the job means has been evolving over the past couple of generations. People used to complain that vice presidents had nothing to do. Now some people complain that the current vice president has too much authority.

Joel Goldstein joins us from member station KWMU in Saint Louis. He's a law professor at Saint Louis University and a longtime scholar of the vice presidency. Professor Goldstein, thanks for being with us.

Professor JOEL K. GOLDSTEIN (Law, Saint Louis University): Good morning.

SIMON: And I gather that Walter Mondale was what you consider the first modern vice president. What did he do to change the job? Or what did President Carter do to change the job?

Professor GOLDSTEIN: It really was a combination of Carter and Mondale that really was sort of the big bang that created the modern vice presidency. Carter was committed to having an active vice president, changing the vice presidency from a wasted asset to a really functioning part of the government. And he and Mondale spent a lot of time reconstructing the office. Mondale came in with a new vision of the office as a cross-the-board adviser and troubleshooter without any specific portfolio. And then Carter gave him the resources to succeed in that sort of function.

SIMON: What's the effect of Dick Cheney's vice presidency been, do you think?

Professor GOLDSTEIN: Cheney has been the most important, the most influential vice president that we've ever had in the sense of this is the first time when people have ever talked about an imperial vice presidency which other - previously would have been thought of as a classic oxymoron. My guess is that the Cheney vice presidency long term won't have much impact in terms of - I doubt that it will be followed or copied.

SIMON: Professor Goldstein, do you buy the argument that whoever is picked as the vice presidential candidate has much of an effect on the presidential election?

Professor GOLDSTEIN: I think the vice presidential campaign certainly can, particularly if one candidate picks somebody who's presidential, and the other party picks somebody who's not ready for prime time. I think that Edmund Muskie certainly helped Hubert Humphrey in 1968...

SIMON: But Richard Nixon became president, let me point out. He didn't help him that much. I point that to what you point as something that confirms the argument, I think, some people might fairly point to something that undoes the argument.

Professor GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I think that's a mistake, because I think that the fact that Nixon won shows that the vice presidential comparison may not be decisive. But it doesn't mean that it doesn't have an effect. In 1976, Walter Mondale helped Jimmy Carter carry Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Without carrying at least two of those states, Carter doesn't become president.

The other way in which it makes a difference is that it sends important messages to the public about what the presidential candidate values and how he goes about making decisions. I personally think that the choice of Dick Cheney actually helped George Bush in 2000, because it sent a message that then Governor Bush would surround himself with people with impressive resumes and some idea about how the world and Washington worked.

SIMON: In the end, does the approach of the president to his or her office, his or her managerial style, his or her agenda, determine what a vice president does? I mean, it's their candy store, isn't it?

Professor GOLDSTEIN: It absolutely is. And if the president doesn't want the vice president to be powerful or influential, the vice president won't be powerful or influential. With the Mondale resources, all vice presidents now, I think, have a seat at the table. They've got a West Wing office. They've got a weekly private meeting with the president. Those are permanent features of our government and are no more likely to be moved than the Washington monument. But how much influence the vice president has in the room is a function of how much the president is willing to listen to him or her and how skillful the vice president is in offering advice.

SIMON: Joel Goldstein, professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. GOLDSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

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