Ignoring the siren call of the White House

Well, perhaps Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh isn’t just another pretty face after all. Give him a C for common sense. He has decided after only two weeks of political water testing not to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s not a bad decision considering his chances even in the strange and unpredictable world of presidential politics were about the same has his father’s before him, practically nonexistent.

But if the history of his state is any indication, it just means he is positioning himself for the possibility of a vice presidential bid from whomever the party chooses to carry its banner in two years. After all, Hoosiers seem to gravitate toward the understudy role. Five of them have held the job. The list includes the first George Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle. Anyone remember him?

Old timers recall Bayh as "Chip," the handsome young son of Sen. Birch Bayh Jr., who represented Indiana in the ’60s and early ’70s and made an abortive run at the party nomination before deciding, apparently, that he had pretty much run the string on his own father’s legacy that had jumped-started his political career in the basketball-nutty state. Birch Bayh Sr. was a renowned hardwood figure — player, coach and referee — for whom many thought they were voting when junior first turned up running for the state legislature.

The current Bayh, who served two credible terms as governor of Indiana before ascending to the Senate, now joins a growing list of colleagues who also have assessed their chances of winning the party’s brass ring and decided it was just too expensive a proposition, given the odds against success. They made this sacrifice despite the fact that in their heart of hearts they know they would be more likely to save the nation than whoever is chosen. Recently retired Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee declined to run, as did Virginia Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, certainly one of the more attractive prospects but also a long way from the kind of star wattage necessary against New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

The field is still full of aspirants in both parties, however, proving the truth of an assessment attributed to Lyndon Johnson that on any given day there are 99 senators who think they can do the job better than the current White House occupant. There would have been 100, the full complement, who felt that way, he is reported to have said, but one person was sick that day.

Bayh, Warner and Frist may have made common-sense decisions, no matter how painful, but one of the lesser lights in terms of national recognition, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, is sticking with it because, as he told reporters at breakfast recently, he has a "responsibility" to do so. He did not say to whom he had the responsibility but one supposes he meant to his fellow citizens, most of whom are unaware of his existence or his desire to lead them.

Vilsack is one of any number of Democratic and Republican possibilities basing their hopes on what has become known as the Carter factor. When "Jimmy Who?" first sat down to play after a brief stint in the Georgia governorship, everyone laughed — everyone except a handful of his longtime friends and aides who saw a chance for improbable success if all the more liberal big names of the party committed fratricide. They did. Using his peanut-farming charm in a major rural state, Carter turned a minor Iowa caucus into a launching pad that led him to victory in the granddaddy of primaries, New Hampshire. The rest, as they say, is history.

Iowa, as illogical as it may seem, now has become the necessary first step toward the nomination, although a few candidates try to skip it. Vilsack obviously believes he has a leg up on the rest of the field in the home-state caucuses and that a win there will give him the boost, recognition and financing he needs for the nomination.

One can only wonder what drives a person to seek the most thankless job in the world. It is a post that, even if one survives, leaves one at loose ends the rest of his or her life. Maybe we should ask Bayh, who seems to understand better than most that the costs are too high.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)