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Yes, VP choices do matter in elections

Jun 3, 2012 - By Mark Shields

One of the fun things about my job is that I get to ask questions of semi-famous public people.

Of course, these semi-famous people do not have to answer my questions or anybody else's.

But occasionally -- away from the cameras, the microphones and the rehearsed stump speeches -- public figures do let their hair and guard down, and you get to see how they treat their own staff, waitresses, and other ordinary people whom the public figures do not feel the need to impress.

These unscripted moments can help me answer one of the most-frequently asked questions I get, after people find out what I do: "What is (fill in semi-famous person's name) really like?"

At first, it was slightly unnerving to find out that an elected officeholder whose public record I had admired could be, away from the limelight, terminally egotistical, rude and even abusive to those less powerful than he was.

Just as surprising was to discover that an officeholder whose public positions I had seen as shallow or venal was, in private, a funny, unselfish and thoughtful boss or spouse.

Which brings me to Richard M. Nixon.

My daughter Amy attended, some 30 years later, the same Washington, D.C., high school, Sidwell Friends, that Richard and Pat Nixon's daughters, Julie and Tricia, did.

They had the same history teacher, the late Harvey K. LeSure Jr., who from time to time used to comment (usually kindly) on things I had written or said.

After Amy Shields's high-school graduation, I took LeSure to lunch, where I asked him, among other subjects, about Richard Nixon.

LeSure, a practicing Quaker, who after being rejected for the U.S. military because of his poor eyesight had become a medical corpsman and surgeon's assistant with the British Army in North Africa, gently noted he was "never a political fan of Mr. Nixon."

But, ever fair, LeSure offered this more complete portrait of the man. Richard Nixon, I learned, "drove his daughters' carpool" and, as vice president, would come out after school to watch Julie play field hockey.

Mr. and Mrs. Nixon could always be depended upon to chaperone the school dances, and he frequently wrote notes of encouragement or condolence to members of the school community.

This was clearly not the Richard Nixon I had in mind. Harvey LeSure summed: "I knew Nixon as a father, and he was one of the best" (an observation which could explain Julie Nixon Eisenhower's tireless public defense of her father during Watergate).

All of this came to mind after a historian friend of mine, Steve Bouchard, reminded me that since 1928 no Republican ticket has won the White House that did not include on it a nominee named either Bush or Nixon.

I am an agnostic on whom Mitt Romney should choose as his running mate. But unless he wants to test 84 years of history, Romney would be wise to take a long, hard look at the popular former chief executive of the biggest, critically important swing state, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

The VP selection does, in fact, matter. Not only have five of the last 11 presidents first served as vice president, but in 10 of the most recent 13 presidential elections, one or both of the major-party candidates had previously served as, or been nominated for, vice president.

Of course, before Mitt Romney decides on his ticket-mate, he would be wise to ask as many people as possible he can: "What's she (or he) really like?"

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