In the next three weeks, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are going to announce their vice presidential picks in moves that will have enormous consequences for their campaigns — and their parties for years to come.
There is a history in American politics that vice presidential nominees eventually morph into presidential candidates in four or eight years. John Edwards did it. So did George H.W. Bush and Al Gore.
More recently, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden all flirted with their own presidential bids.
So this month’s vice presidential picks instantaneously become part of the next presidential conversation.
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There’s no better example of that than our own Bob Dole, who this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of his ascendency onto the national political stage. It was 1976 in Kansas City when President Gerald Ford tapped the relatively unknown Dole in a move that shocked insiders because it was so utterly unexpected.
With a snap of the fingers, Dole became a national figure, a status that would endure for 20 years. He was a GOP presidential candidate in 1980, 1988 and 1996 and served a record stint as Senate majority and minority leader in the 1980s and ’90s. To this day, Dole will tell you that 1988 was his year, his best shot at winning the greatest prize in American politics. He won Iowa and was leading Bush in New Hampshire when a snowstorm undermined him.
But that’s history for another day.
Today’s story is about Aug. 19, 1976, when Ford picked Dole, who is expected to attend this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland to support Trump. Few expected Ford to turn to the senator from Kansas, who had barely survived re-election in the Watergate year of 1974. The hot names that year were Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, former deputy attorney general William D. Ruckelshaus and Treasury Secretary William Simon.
Ford, who had barely survived an intraparty fight with Ronald Reagan that summer, was said to be still up in the air on his veep following a meeting with his political advisers that ended at 5 that morning
But five hours and 31 minutes later, Ford had made up his mind.
At 10:31 a.m. that day, the phone rang in Room 727 of the Radisson Muehlebach Hotel. Dole, the longest of long shots who was desperately hoping to be selected, got on the line.
“This is the president, Bob,” Ford said.
“Nice to hear from you, Mr. President,” Dole said with a laugh. “Do you have anything in mind — I hope?”
“Bob, I’d like you to be on the ticket as vice president,” Ford said.
Responded Dole: “I can’t believe it. If you think I can help …”
With that, Dole was off to Crown Center to meet with Ford, who then formally introduced the Kansan as his running mate to the world.
Some irony? Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s convention manager that year, had joshed with Dole all week about leaving the Ford campaign to become Reagan’s running mate.
But Ford, who needed to bolster his conservative bona fides in the wake of Reagan’s challenge, insisted that he and Dole were a great ideological fit. This, Ford said at Crown Center that day, is a “very great occasion.”
Especially for Dole, who began eyeing the presidency from that moment forward. From then on, as it may be for Trump’s and Clinton’s picks, the highest office in the land becomes the goal.
The ultimate goal.