If you’re the type that follows Presidential campaigns, you may have noticed something unusual about 2008, aside from the fact that Sean Hannity’s skull seems to be getting larger in some Barry Bonds sort of way (Republican steroids, perhaps): There is no incumbent President or Vice President running for office. This is the first time since 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Richard M. Nixon went up against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and Alabama Senator John Sparkman.
Thanks to a filthy, kneecapping media blitz that makes the Hillary-Barack dustup look like Our Town and a singularly inept campaign by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988 beat considerable odds and accomplished the notable feat of being the first sitting Vice President since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to ascend to the Presidency.
In his fabulous and exhaustive account of the 1988 Presidential campaign, 1992′s What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer introduces us to “The Bubble” and explains why sitting Vice Presidents make such awful and unsuccessful Presidential candidates.
He tells the story of Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush visiting the Houston Astrodome to throw out the first pitch in the National League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Mets on October 8, 1986. This wasn’t a man-of-the-people meet-and-greet. This was a Vice Presidential Event.
“So George Bush is coming to the Astrodome,” Cramer writes. “The thing is, it couldn’t just happen. George Bush couldn’t just fly in, catch a cab to the ballpark, get his ticket torn, and grab a beer on the way to his seat. No, he had come too far for that.”
The massive logistics that had to be considered and implemented had been in play for two months, since the Director of Advance in the Office of the Vice President told the White House Military Office to secure Air Force Two and Air Force Two’s backup for the event. They had to coordinate with the squadron at Andrews Air Force Base for a Special Air Mission. An Air Force transport plane had to fly in new communications and Secret Service equipment for the Astrodome. The Air Force Vice Chief of Staff in charge of Special Air Missions had to assign this Vice Presidential event, or Volant Silver (a Presidential event of this nature would be a Volant Banner), to the Military Airlift Command.
The first order of business at the Astrodome was to decide what kind of event this was going to be. “Sure, it’s a first-ball thing, but where would he make the throw?…The mound?…The (Secret) Service didn’t want him exposed on the field like a baited goose. Did (Astros’ owner Dr. John) McMullen want his 44,000 fans held at the gates and frisked for metal?…Absolutely not.”
A dozen Secret Service advance men would spend the next two days walking over every foot of ground that the Vice President would pass. The three air conditioners that he would walk past were dismantled and completely inspected for anything out of the ordinary. None of this accounted for the media preparations that had to be put in place. All of this for a 60-second event.
Vice President Bush was completely oblivious to the operational tornado that would precede his arrival, just as he’d been for every Vice Presidential Event he’d attended for the previous six years. He would arrive with his motorcade, be led to where he was supposed to be, and do what he was supposed to do. He had some clue, but it had been going on so long that it was as routine to him as our morning commute is for any of us. The advance teams did everything they could to remove any element of spontanaeity or surprise from this briefest of events–you know, the kinds of things that happen when people get together in public places. The important thing was that the Vice President was secure and comfortable. “Those were the twin imperatives in the Vice Presidential motorcade…They were the givens of his life, along with the thousands of hours of unseen labor by others. In this case, some 400 people, a couple hundred thousand dollars, and a couple hundred million dollars in government equipment got the Vice President to the ball game in perfect security, and comfort.
“This is living in the bubble, and George Bush had long since perfected the art. By this time, midway through his second term, he had almost ceased to notice the special circumstances of his being. After almost six years as Vice President, the bubble was his milieu…No one who hadn’t lived in the bubble could know what it was like: a trip of a thousand miles, two thousand, or more, across a continent, around the globe, without one word exchanged with a stranger; a year, two years, four years, without driving a car, without being allowed to drive a car; instead, the hush of the limousine and the silent smile from the Service man at the wheel; the stewards in the plane, hovering to know his pleasure.”
It’s no small thing to run for higher office and still be able to connect to real people. It would seem almost an impossibility after four or eight years as Vice President of the United States. One need look no further than last week when Vice President Dick Cheney told Martha Raditz, “So?”, when she noted that more than two-thirds of all Americans were opposed to continued involvement in Iraq. It’s a little different when a war is all numbers on a briefing paper and it isn’t your kids getting ripped apart by IEDs.
For all the ridiculing of Obama’s incessant call for “change”, Americans want to elect a President who has some clue of what they go through every day. George H.W. Bush had no clue of what it’s like to shop at Home Depot or go to Sam’s Club because the beer’s cheaper. Even worse, he looked at his watch during the Town Hall debate with Bill Clinton, as if he was bored with the gripes of the Great Unwashed.
Populism takes different forms, and George Bush was probably elected in part because of the perception that he was an affable but flawed human like most Americans, and that resonated. That’s why his drunk driving arrest from 1976 that came out days before the election didn’t hurt his poll numbers a bit. Yes, he was a child of privilege, but he had a baseball team and he used to be an alcoholic and he was a little sloppy in his personal responsibilities. He wasn’t the smartest kid in the class like Al Gore, with his Green evangelism and his smarmy “I invented the Internet” claptrap (of course, what was lost in all the character assassination was that Al Gore actually served in Vietnam).
More than a small number of Americans voted for Bill Clinton because they knew, unspokenly, that he knew what it was to pay for a lap dance. I don’t know if Barack has ever paid for a lap dance, but he did cocaine and weed when he was in his disco suit period in the late 1970s. John McCain paid for lap dances and more on leave before he was taken Prisoner of War and after he returned to the U.S. Hillary doesn’t know it if she hasn’t closely checked her credit card statements, but on at least one joint card I’m sure she’s unwittingly paid for a handful of lap dances, which doesn’t really count, but she’s had to wrestle with Bill’s infidelity and the quandary of whether or not to set his last night’s clothes on fire rather than wash them after he tosses them in the hamper smelling like someone else’s perfume.
We’ve got no incumbent running this year, and that’s no doubt a good thing for our democracy. Power corrupts, and insular power corrupts insularly. The three candidates remaining have spent just enough time out of the bubble that they have an idea of what it’s like to carry your own lunch to work. I think I’m voting for the guy with the cocaine history and the Tony Manero suit.