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Commentary: The vice presidency, according to Sarah Palin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 9, 2008 - Gov. Sarah Palin's comments repeatedly confirm that she is largely uninformed about the vice presidency. Given three chances to address the subject, she has missed each time. And what she does say is quite troubling.

When asked about the position shortly before Sen. John McCain chose her, Gov. Palin replied: "As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I'm used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we're trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S. before I can even start addressing that question."

Contrary to her disingenuous claim during the vice-presidential debate, she was not making a joke. Anyone who reads the newspapers that Gov. Palin now claims to consult knows what Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, does. And, of course, the vice president is a national officer responsible to all of us, not simply to the fewer than 1 percent who live in our fourth least populous state.

Gov. Palin had a chance to redeem herself when Katie Couric asked some softball questions about the vice presidency. Gov. Palin cited supporting American troops and shooting his friend in a hunting accident respectively as the "best and worst thing that Dick Cheney has done as vice president." These answers, which might be appropriate from a middle school student, reveal only the most superficial awareness of the activities of our most powerful vice president.

Perhaps Gov. Palin cannot discuss the ongoing work of the office because it has a different appeal for her. Asked by Ms. Couric what "previous vice president impresses you the most and why," Gov. Palin first mentioned unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro who "shattered part of that glass ceiling" and then, when pressed to answer the question, identified George H.W. Bush, the person who defeated Ferraro.

Gov. Palin was not impressed with Vice President Bush's substantive contributions or the way he conducted himself in the second office. Rather, he broke a different sort of barrier, the one that said sitting vice presidents since Martin Van Buren don't win the presidency themselves. She replied: "I think those who have gone on to the presidency, George Bush Sr., having, kind of learned the ropes in his position as VP and then movin' on up." Of course, Vice President Bush could contribute because he knew the ropes before Ronald Reagan chose him. That aside, could it be that what appeals to Gov. Palin is not the opportunity to contribute to government but "movin on up?"

The recent vice-presidential debate gave Gov. Palin a third chance to demonstrate understanding of the office she seeks. Vice-presidential debates often include some question about the office, so Gov. Palin no doubt came prepared. She said that Sen. McCain would ask her to lead in three areas: energy, government reform and children with special needs. If so, she would apparently take on specific line assignments as have some recent vice presidents.

But the rest of her discussion was mystifying and troubling. Although she is right that the vice-presidential role is flexible, her response to whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's claim that the office belongs to the legislative and executive branches was thoroughly nonresponsive and incoherent.

She said she planned to take her role as president of the Senate "very seriously," something that no one in recent decades has done because everyone understands it is a ceremonial role. Everyone but Gov. Palin. She claimed that "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate." Yet our first vice president, John Adams, said of his Senate role, "I am nothing" and "I can do neither good nor evil." More than 200 years of experience confirm that he was right. C-Span's ratings would skyrocket if Gov. Palin tried to "exert" some "more authority" as Senate president; the Senate would give her history's most entertaining lesson in Government 101.

In recent decades, the vice president has served as a senior adviser and troubleshooter for the president. It is unfortunate that Sen. McCain did not choose someone who could fill that valuable role. It is even more unfortunate that the person he chose is largely ignorant about the important office she seeks other than its value as a political springboard.

Joel K. Goldstein is an authority on the vice presidency and a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law.