When Nelson Rockefeller flew to Washington to be sworn in as Vice President, the family jet pulled up to the ramp at National Airport with the door on the wrong side of the television cameras. He entered capital history totally obscured by the fuselage of his Gulfstream.
Going to the White House a couple of days later to get his first instructions from Gerald Ford, Rockefeller took just one aide with him; the assistant stayed quietly out of the way. For those few hours backstage, Rockefeller walked through the routine by himself, drawing very little special attention but going unerringly over terrain with which he was familiar.
He took the Vice President's chair in the Cabinet Room and sat through a two-hour economic conference. Then he wandered down to the lobby of the West Wing, waited a while, and came back to the Oval Office, where he cooled his heels a little more, a comfortable and genial figure greeting the President's staff. When it was time for pictures of the Ford-Rockefeller meeting, the two men were near the President's desk, the President leaning back in his chair and the Vice President at the corner. They did not bother with the formal pose around the fireplace that is usual for such historic encounters.
Until a few days ago, the vice-presidential office in the Executive Office Building was empty, a bored security man tending the silence. With the Vice President off in Puerto Rico, Ann Whitman, his chief of staff, came to town to scout the space requirements and establish the Rockefeller presence. She moved with assurance and understanding, and hardly made a ripple, in contrast to the usual entry of a new man's advance guard. Having been Dwight Eisenhower's personal secretary, she has spent more time in the White House and its environs than Ford and Rockefeller put together.
These were the first faint whiffs of something that could be very new and very good for the presidency and for America. For 22 years the office of the vice presidency has been cast in the images of two singular menRichard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. For eight years Nixon was the Vice President. He was not fully trusted by Eisenhower and there was certainly little real affection between them. Even as Vice President, Nixon was a remote and imperial figure, establishing elaborate protocol safeguards as he moved around Congress and the White House.
When Nixon stepped out of the vice presidency, Johnson took over. In some ways, he was like Nixon. At least part of the problem in Johnson's vice presidency was L.B.J.'s personality and lust for power. The more restless he got, the more suspicious of him the Kennedy people became.
As President, Johnson totally dominated the vice presidency of Hubert Humphrey. Sharing authority, or even listening to Humphrey, was not Johnson's notion of how things were supposed to work. Once he suggested that all Humphrey had to do was sit in his office and wait for orders, needing only a woman to answer the phone and a cedar pencil with an eraser on it.
When Nixon came to power, he, like L.B. J., warped the role of the Vice President. Nixon used Spiro Agnew as a destructive political force, isolating him almost entirely from policy deliberations.