John Danforth, a Minister, Tops Bush's Veep List

Exclusive: Former Missouri Senator would lend gravity, integrity and some religious cred to George W.'s ticket

  • A vice president is never more important than at the instant of being chosen, because the choice tells you so much about the person who does the picking. When the doors are closed, George W. Bush doesn't have to listen to advice or stroke Republican egos; he can say what he pleases. John McCain? asked a friend. Gimme a break, said Bush. Ohio Congressman John Kasich, Bush argued, isn't ready for the job. Pro-choice Pennsylvanian Tom Ridge might cost him too many pro-life votes in states where a point or two will make the difference. And it has been clear to Bush for weeks that Colin Powell would rather be Secretary of State.

    So what name does Bush return to in his private ruminations? A pro-life Episcopal minister; a man out of politics for five years; a popular pol from an important battleground state; someone 10 years older, yet from an entirely different generation, who would strengthen Bush in all his weak spots: John Danforth, the earnest former Senator from Missouri. That Danforth is on his mind tells you a lot about how Bush sees himself-and how he thinks Americans see him. Bush isn't shopping for geographical balance, though Missouri is one of only two states that have voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1960. What Bush needs is temperamental balance, someone who can add weight to a ticket that is going to be sharply scrutinized by voters for sobriety and intellectual heft.

    Danforth, 63, is synonymous with serious. Soft-spoken and affable, he spent 18 years in the Senate as a voice of moral authority, and was known for his thoughtful (sometimes sanctimonious) speeches. He had a hand in modernizing tax and trade policy during the 1980s but came to national prominence in 1991 with his take-no-prisoners defense of Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Danforth fought zealously for his former staff member in the face of Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment. He ultimately prevailed but retired three years later, still smarting. He wrote a book about the hearings, titled Resurrection, in which he sounded almost surprised that partisanship can get nasty. With degrees in law and divinity, Danforth is in some ways an overgrown boy scout, which would also balance the smart-alecky Bush. "Jack Danforth wouldn't know how to smirk if you told him to," quipped a former aide.

    Vice Presidents are a sensitive issue in the Greater Bush Household, where J. Danforth Quayle is still remembered as a kind of slow-acting fatal disease. The family model for the perfect Veep has always been the elder Bush, who for eight years was Ronald Reagan's loyal, silent wingman. But Dubya can't pick his father as a running mate, so he is eyeing someone Dad nearly chose in 1988, before settling on Quayle. (One might say the elder Bush tapped the wrong Danforth.) Danforth of Missouri is a moderate Republican with ties to the party's conservative wing. After leaving office, the wealthy Ralston Purina heir returned to St. Louis, where he has been active in rebuilding the dilapidated inner city. (He also joined the board of directors of Time Warner, parent company of Time.)

    And so last week Dick Cheney, who heads Bush's vice-presidential search team, sent quiet feelers to St. Louis. One question on Bush's mind: Would Danforth's work as special counsel for the Justice Department's investigation of Waco be completed in time for the fall campaign? (The answer: Yes.) The former Senator declined to speak with Time about the Veep's job because, an intermediary explained, "he doesn't feel it's his place to comment."

    Danforth is still a hit in Missouri, where 11 electoral votes are up for grabs. A key Gore organizer in St. Louis, informed of the prospect of Danforth on the Bush ticket, let loose a string of expletives before adding, "he's very popular among moderates and independents." And, for now, with the likely GOP nominee himself.