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Barack Obama's 'No!' to VP slot mirrors another famous senator

March 10, 2008 |  9:02 am

Candidates running hard for president usually do everything they can to dodge a direct answer to: "Will you accept the position of vice presidential candidate on your party's ticket?" They'll say something diffuse about, "Right now, I'm focused on winning my party's presidential nomination, which I am confident I will do."

So Barack Obama's comment to a Montana TV reporter in Casper, Wyo. Friday night -- "You won't see me as a vice presidential candidate" -- was, as we noted right away that night, unusually direct.

But not as direct as the lasting answer given by another Democratic senator so many years ago -- in fact,  two years before Obama was born. We are indebted to fellow blogger Chuck Boyce for leading us to some fascinating video nearly a half-century old that recounts another....

senator -- in fact, only the second and the last sitting senator in the nation's history ever to be elected president -- who made a similar unequivocal statement. And he meant it.

It was John F. Kennedy, who had actively but unsuccessfully sought his party's No. 2 spot with Adlai Stevenson in the former Illinois governor's 1956 rematch against Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Four years later, Kennedy formally announced his own presidential candidacy on Jan. 2, 1960.

Check that date; it's a revealing measure of how our presidential politicking has changed. Kennedy started his candidacy barely 11 months before the actual presidential election and about 12 months after presidential wanna-bes hit the trail these days.

Kennedy, who was in his second Senate term then and had won a Pulitzer Prize, made the actual announcement on a Saturday, which meant he dominated the Sunday newspapers right after the New Years holiday. In his announcement, he specifically stated that he would not accept the vice presidential nomination "under any circumstances, and that is not subject to change by any conditions."

The next morning, in living black-and-white TV, Kennedy went on "Meet the Press" with an amazingly stiffly-formal panel of four Washington journalists and moderator Ned Brooks (we seem to recall that Tim Russert at the time had just been hired as a 35-year-old page at NBC's New York studios).

Kennedy's TV appearance occurred just three days into what would become the turbulent and searing decade of the 1960s, a life-shaping time for most of an entire generation. It's an eerie experience to watch, knowing what was coming to the country and Kennedy in the coming years.

It only took until the second panelist, James Reston, for the vice president question to arise. "I will not accept the Democratic Party vice presidential nomination," Kennedy repeated firmly. "I shall support the Democratic ticket and work hard for it."

He recounted the minimal formal duties given to the vice president, presiding over the Senate at times, breaking tie votes and monitoring the president's health. He suggests he can perform a better service as an active senator. And, again eerily, he notes the unlikeliness of a vice president becoming president "presuming that the president will have a normal life expectancy."

Kennedy states that people don't vote for vice presidents and, revealing his young campaign's soon-to-be-familiar thorough preparedness, he notes in detail by names and dates that in the previous 60 years vice presidential candidates had not contributed an electoral vote by bringing along their home state.

That statement would prove particularly ironic later that year when Kennedy agreed to party leaders' suggestions at the national convention in Los Angeles that he choose Sen. Lyndon Johnson as his vice presidential running mate for just that very reason, in order to capture the important electoral votes of Texas for the ticket. Which Johnson did for the Democrats' narrow victory.

At the time of that "Meet the Press" broadcast, Johnson, by the way, was competing with Kennedy for the nomination and had also announced that he would not accept the party's vice presidential slot. But because he didn't mean it or changed his mind, he was destined to become president on Nov. 22, 1963, with Kennedy's assassination in Johnson's home state.

The first video is an excerpt from a news conference Kennedy held after announcing his candidacy. The second is his appearance the next day on NBC's "Meet the Press."

--Andrew Malcolm

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