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Opinion | Don’t Be Dense, Beware Mike Pence

In his current job Pence is pretty much tied up with the White House crises of the day, but it’s important to remember he’s very possibly a Republican presidential nominee for 2024. If we have an election in 2024. One of the reasons he’s worth watching is trying to imagine what he’d do if the boss decided to ignore the election results this November.

Back in days of yore nobody cared much about the vice presidency. John Nance Garner said it was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Garner, who served for eight years under Franklin Roosevelt, apparently figured that F.D.R. would retire after two terms and hand over the nomination to his second-in-command. Imagine his surprise when F.D.R. went for number three.

Now there’s a history lesson Pence should keep in mind.

Thomas Marshall, who was Woodrow Wilson’s veep, used to tell the story of two brothers: “One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again.” You could appreciate his attitude since he was frozen out of everything in the Wilson administration, even after the president himself was paralyzed from a stroke.

But these are stories from the old days, when a vice president counted himself reasonably lucky if he was given a project — an agency or an issue — that gave him an excuse for coming into work in the morning. The job turned into something very different in modern times. Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University who has written a book about the vice presidency, notes that Richard Nixon almost never performed the traditional job of presiding over the Senate, preferring to travel and do political work for his boss, Dwight Eisenhower. Which was sort of ironic given that, when Nixon was running to succeed him, Eisenhower was asked about any major ideas his vice president had contributed to the administration. And Ike replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

The real change began with Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s second-in-command. “Mondale became an across-the-board troubleshooter,” Goldstein said in a phone interview.

Having a relatively powerful, activist vice president worked very well when the guy in question was Mondale. But pitfalls abounded. You may remember that the Republican Dan Quayle made headlines when he corrected a schoolchild for spelling “potato” without an e at the end. “There you go,” he advised the kid after adding the extra vowel. There was some applause from the adults in the room, which just goes to show you that politicians should not always trust the instincts of the base.

Quayle was, by the way, from Indiana. As was Thomas Marshall and — yes! Our man Mike Pence.

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