Thursday, June 12, 2008 | What could be more natural than adding Hillary Clinton to the ticket? In the primaries, she was strong where Barack Obama was weak — with seniors, women, Hispanics, organized labor. He did better with college grads and the South, but she did better with high school grads and the rust belt. Together, they would be formidable.

He could have dangled the job in that secret tête-à-tête they had last week at Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s house following the last primaries. They could have talked about the kind of “dream ticket” Harry Truman proposed to Dwight Eisenhower in 1948, or that was briefly envisaged in 1980, with Ronald Reagan offering the vice presidency to former President Gerald Ford.

Those tickets didn’t work out. Eisenhower chose not to run in 1948 and despite Truman’s overtures in 1952, declared as a Republican, not a Democrat. As for the 1980 Reagan-Ford ticket, widely anticipated following a long Walter Cronkite interview with Ford at the GOP convention in Detroit, Reagan decided that having a former president on the ticket wouldn’t work and chose George H.W. Bush.

If Obama and Clinton knew of those precedents, they also knew that Truman won in 1948 without Eisenhower, and Reagan won in 1980 without Ford. On the other hand, John Kerry, who offered John McCain the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket in 2004 — and even talked of a “co-presidency” with him — lost narrowly. McCain could have made the difference for Kerry.

Most of the time, vice presidents don’t matter. Those remembered through history are the ones who went on to become president, like Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt. Often vice presidents come from the bottom of the litter as last-resort compromises — as when Nixon picked Maryland’s Spiro Agnew in 1968 after Illinois’ Charles Percy and Oregon’s Mark Hatfield were vetoed by Southern segregationists led by Strom Thurmond.

Maybe Obama should look to 1960 for his precedent. John Kennedy would have preferred almost anyone to Johnson as a running mate, but made him a polite offer thinking Johnson would never quit as Senate majority leader to take a job described by a fellow Texan as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Johnson was equally unenthusiastic, nursing resentment for having lost the nomination to Kennedy.

It was the Washington Post’s Grahams who performed that odd political marriage. Publisher Phil Graham had supported Johnson for president, while his wife, Katherine, who would take over the newspaper following Phil’s suicide, supported Kennedy. When Kennedy won the nomination, Phil pressed him to take Johnson on the ticket, and JFK, according to Bobby Kennedy, “came upon this idea of trying to get rid of him by offering him the job. It didn’t work.”

Asked later why he gave up his post as majority leader for a bucket of warm spit, Johnson replied, “power is where power goes.” The relevance for Obama is that Kennedy couldn’t have won Texas without Johnson and, without Texas, would have lost the election to Nixon.

Like JFK, Obama has reasons to shy away from someone he doesn’t really like, but there is one good reason to consider Clinton: she can help him win. If Kennedy had picked Stuart Symington or George Smathers as running mates, he would have lost the election to Nixon. History would be very different for the nation and for the Kennedys.

In the primaries, Clinton was far stronger than Obama in the swing states Democrats have to win. West Virginia’s measly five electoral votes made George W. Bush president in 2000. Perhaps Dick Cheney forgot about that last week when he made his little joke about West Virginian incest.

Obama should take Clinton on the ticket, though I doubt that he will.

He should take her for the following reasons:

  • + She may actually have won the primaries, deprived of victory only by the party snafu over Florida and Michigan. In other words, she’s entitled. Even if Obama doesn’t see it that way, a lot of voters, especially women, do.
  • + Unlike Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Clinton is no feminine token. She is a real political leader who came within a whisker of making history. The pride, poignancy and chagrin of her concession speech last week was a reflection of how much her candidacy meant to her supporters, a majority of them women. There’s no question that she had to overcome real “biases and barriers,” as she put it, and that the feeling of resentment among her supporters is strong.
  • + She’s organized, a hard worker and — to use the modern word — “anal” enough to be a strong complement to Obama, whose strengths are more inspirational and visionary.
  • + She guarantees him victory.

It’s rare that either party has two such good candidates, which is why together they set records for primary voting and stayed neck and neck for six months. To see the logic of such a combination — and its potential for righting the course of a nation adrift — crash on the shoals of political “comfort levels” would be sad.

But…

If Obama does not take Clinton, he needs someone, like her, who gives him strength where he lacks it. Forget Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, et al.

Jim Webb is the guy.

He has great working class appeal. Let the Republicans try to “swift boat” Webb, who describes himself as “the only person in the history of Virginia to be elected to statewide office with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos.” Plus, he might have added: the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, a law degree, three published books, two screenplays and a cabinet post under Ronald Reagan.

The vice presidency need not be a bucket of warm spit. Nor should it be, as it has been under Dick Cheney, a source of Rasputinian power to an inadequate president. The vice president should be precisely what Obama has said he (she) should be: the president’s “No. 1 adviser.”

Before that, however, the vice president has to help the president get elected.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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