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Being No. 2 -- and not trying harder

The presidential candidates aren't exactly the life of their parties these days. More often than not they look cranky -- eyes chilly, mouths pursed in a kind of cosmic disapproval. They seem to be angry not only at one another but at the press, maybe at the electorate, and perhaps at themselves.

On the other hand, those half-forgotten men, the vice-presidential candidates , appear to be having a perfectly splendid time.

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Walter Mondale makes vice-president-type jokes at his own expense, urging audiences: "Go out and vote for Jimmy Carter and vote for whatever local candidadate he's plugging -- and we'll throw in old Walter Mondale for free."

George Bush declares that his presence on the ticket astonishes him as much as everybody else, and confides that, if he doesn't win a bit more of Ronald Reagan's confidence, "I'll be attending a lot of state funerals around the world."

Patrick Lucey tells a pretty funny story about how he became John Anderson's running mate, relating in rich detail the ways Senator Edward Kennedy and Governor Jerry Brown turned down that honor first. Brown, he imagines, consulted the stars -- "both Hollywood and celestial." Lucey concludes: "I suppose I'm the one person John found who wasn't concerned about his own political future."

It has been noticed that Anderson's mood has tended to go up as his polls have tended to go down, much as Ted Kennedy relaxed and turned downright cheerful when it became clear he had lost the nomination.

What does this say? Do happy guys -- as well as nice guys -- finish last, or at least second?

It's enough to undermine the whole competitive system!

And now here's Kennedy on the Carter campaign trail, cracking jolly jokes about coming this way again, under different circumstances, in another four years.

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Meanwhile, on the Reagan campaign trail, Jerry Ford can be heard doing his own trip-and-fall gags.

How dare these second bananas go so happy? Winning equals happiness.So goes the simplistic American credo. But there is something rather terrifying about a person who is perceived as never having done anything but win, like Alexander the Great.

The Greeks, considering flawed heroes like Alexander, judged it life's most tragic blunder to think that anybody could finally win in the fallible terms of human experience.

That may be why even his most devoted fans felt uneasy when Muhammand Ali, after losing to Larry Holmes, continued prating about his invicibility, like a broken rhyme.

There is nothing more pathetic than claiming invincibility in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the trouble rests on our definitions that insist on turning everybody into either an outright winner or an outright loser, with no in-between.

For starters, we could become a bit more aware that we set up our own rules of the game -- like, having the most money is winning, having less money is losing -- and then behave as if these rules are absolute: the truth.

We might also do well to recognize that so-called loser who learns from his loss is not completely a loser -- indeed he may be further ahead that the winner who learns nothing from winning.

Maybe this is the little something that vice-presidential candidates and also-rans know. And so being No. 2 means notm trying harder. Being No. 2 means avoiding obsession. Being No. 2 means keeping a perspective on the world and yourself -- knowing the improving flavor of a little humility, being able to afford humor.

It's really too bad also-rans can't stay that way and be president.

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