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Steinberg: Vice president should be half pit bull, half idiot

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 10:  The marble bust former vice president Dan Quayle is displayed September 10 2003 during its

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 10: The marble bust of former vice president Dan Quayle is displayed September 10, 2003 during its unveiling ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Dan Quayle was the 44th vice president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:24AM

You do realize that the vice president is supposed to be an imbecile? If not quite an imbecile, then a cross between a zombie (“the vice president of the United States is like a man in a cataleptic state,” Thomas R. Marshall said in 1920. “He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain and yet is he is perfectly conscious”) and an attack dog, half asleep, half snarling.

The extremes at each end of the spectrum are Dan Quayle and Richard Nixon — Nixon of course is far more interesting. His presidency was such a national shame, most of us never consider the eight years he spent as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As a former red-baiter, Nixon’s job was to savage Eisenhower’s foes while Ike floated above the fray, beaming and beloved. Nixon called their opponent, Illinois’ Gov. Adlai Stevenson, “Adlai the Appeaser,” who got his Ph.D. from the “College of Cowardly Containment.” They weren’t running against Democrats, but against “a godless, ruthless, atheistic, and sinister foe that has infiltrated some of our key institutions” (what, you think the Tea Party invented this stuff?)

This strategy worked. Nixon’s ticket

won against one of the most intellectual candidates — the word “egghead” was coined in honor of Stevenson’s bald dome — to ever run for president. Not a good sign for Obama.

Quayle, on the other hand was a notorious lightweight, famous for his bumbling phrases. “I love California,” he said on a visit. “I practically grew up in Phoenix.”

Quayle’s ticket won too, at least the first time around, against hapless Michael Dukakis, whose unemotional response to a hypothetical question about the rape and murder of his wife set the standard for impassive, restrained booting of a debate, prior to Obama’s head-shaking botch last week.

So Thursday night’s joust between the current vice president, Joe Biden, known for a nearly Quaylish genius for saying stupid things, and would-be vice president Paul Ryan, who has a positively Nixonian flair for heaping calumny upon his enemies, should be put into context. Of course they came off bad — they’re supposed to come off bad, to make their bosses look better by comparison.

The good news about vice presidents is they seldom matter — mostly as shields for their bosses. (John Kennedy is remembered for coolly deflecting questions of his religion; nobody recalls Lyndon Johnson campaigning in Texas, facing angry mobs booing and hissing at him and shouting “Judas” and “Traitor” for his siding with the Yankee Catholic.)

The bad news, as LBJ reminds us, is that sometimes vice presidents suddenly matter, very much, and the shift from meaninglessness to significance can be jarring, as can the very idea that this guy holds a powerful — or potentially powerful — role in the first place.

I attended exactly one vice presidential press conference in my life. It was the late 1980s, and I happened to be in Bangkok at the time (long story; a gal was involved) and Dan Quayle was blowing into town on a sweep through Southeast Asia. I was having lunch with my brother at the lux Mandarin Oriental Hotel, when it turned out that the American vice president was coming.

That was something not to be missed — always nice to run into a fellow American when far from home. I stepped out into the hotel driveway just in time to see Quayle’s motorcade arrive, a laughingly long line of jumbo security sports vehicles, police cars and limousines, lights strobing, sirens blaring. There was something comical about seeing this enormous display of American might and glory, only to have a little Dan Quayle pop out. It reminded me of those Warner Bros. cartoons where elaborate spacecraft, one nesting within the other, open up Russian doll style to reveal some tiny figure — Marvin the Martian — hidden within.

Quayle’s talk seemed like a slow motion Supremes routine, with these exaggerated hand gestures that he had obviously laboriously learned. “We don’t want to stop . . .” and here he held out his palm, flat, like a traffic cop, or Diana Ross singing “Stop in the Name of Love” “. . . the legitimate aspirations of the Cambodian people . . .” Embarrassing.

Quayle’s Indiana supporters always point out that he was actually smarter than people give him credit for — which I suppose has to be true because, really, he couldn’t be dumber, could he? It would be impossible.

That holds true for most vice presidents. Their role demands a certain low-key blundering, and when it doesn’t, the ability of the president to disassociate himself from them when convenient. Eisenhower washed his hands of Nixon — after eight years of faithful service, Ike didn’t just barely campaign for him in 1960, but threw his henchman under the bus. Asked by newsmen to list Nixon’s accomplishments during his years as vice president, Eisenhower said, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” That would hold true for almost any vice president.

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