Veep Rollouts That Worked, and Those That Really Did Not

George E. Condon Jr.
August 11, 2012

George H.W. Bush was obsessed with secrecy. He didn’t want any leaks of his vice-presidential pick until he could personally announce it in New Orleans, where Republicans were gathered for the convention that would nominate him for the top spot. Bush had been around politics a long time and had himself suffered through press leaks about his own place on “short lists.” But there was a price to be paid when he sprung his choice of Dan Quayle on an unsuspecting party and a skeptical country—his own staffers had never asked Quayle the right questions and they were too in the dark to be able to handle the sudden avalanche of press queries.

(RELATED: When Do Candidate Choose Their Veeps?)

“Quayle’s profile was a near total blank, so empty of details that a gathering of Bush’s regional directors sent a gofer to the nearest Waldenbooks for a copy of The Almanac of American Politics 1988 so they would know who in hell it was they were supposed to be out there selling,” reported authors Peter Goldman and Tom Mathews in The Quest for the Presidency, 1988. A similar fate befell aides to Republican Sen. John McCain two decades later when McCain, like Bush, was too casual in the vetting of his running mate and sprung Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on a political world that knew little about her. This time, aides didn’t run to a bookstore. They raced to the Internet. “Frantic staffers were reduced to Googling Palin’s name or hitting the State of Alaska’s website, which was constantly crashing due to overload,” according to Game Change by reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Today, four years after a vice-presidential choice former Vice President Dick Cheney recently labeled “a mistake,” it is Mitt Romney’s turn to put his own stamp on the process used to pick a running mate and his turn to try to pull off a full vetting without leaking names to the press. In this, history provides him a wide array of dos and don’ts and, unfortunately, far more examples of how not to pick a vice president than how to do it right. It is a process that attracted only scant attention until 1964 when memories of a violent act suddenly elevating a vice president to the Oval Office were still sharp and painful. But in the 12 elections since then, presidents have deceived, hidden, demeaned, paraded, grilled, interrogated, auditioned, and ignored those they placed on their “short” or “long” lists for the VP slot. Some embarrassed the contenders by being too public about the process; others embarrassed themselves by being too secretive about it.

“It’s harder to find a good vice-presidential candidate than you might think," wrote Cheney in his memoir. A veteran of the process, Cheney headed George W. Bush’s search in 2000. He added, “When you start looking, you find that everyone has negatives. Everyone has some kind of baggage—whether it’s a voting record, a financial problem, or something in his or her personal life.” Candidates have varied widely in how they’ve tried to uncover those negatives. Ever since Democrat George McGovern was blindsided by late revelations about shock treatments to his choice, Sen. Tom Eagleton, and forced him off the ticket in 1972, nominees have generally demanded at least a decade of tax returns and complete disclosure.

In recent years, there has even been disagreement about the right timing of the choice. Before 1984, no running mate was announced until the convention began. That changed that year because Democrat Walter F. Mondale needed to shake up the race and wanted to call full attention to his historic choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman to join a major party ticket. Since then, every nonincumbent candidate except for Bush in 1988 has followed Mondale’s example and eliminated the suspense before the convention’s start. But there are still advisers who believe Jimmy Carter was correct in 1980 to save the announcement until the convention to add drama to the proceedings.

Here are the selections handled correctly and the ones that went badly off script, the ones with some lessons for Romney:

Choices that worked:

1992: Democrat Bill Clinton picking Al Gore.

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Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton broke all the conventional rules when he picked another baby-boomer moderate from a neighboring Southern state. No balance in age, geography, or ideology. But the optics were unbelievable when the Clintons and Gores walked across the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock on July 9, four days before the convention. The pictures reinforced the central message of the campaign: that Clinton was a “different kind of Democrat” ready to bring change to Washington.

To get to that decision, Clinton was determined to avoid leaks. So for the final interviews, Gore, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, and Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania were snuck through the loading dock of the Capital Hilton Hotel to a suite booked under an aide’s wife’s name to talk with Clinton. A fifth finalist, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, got a midnight meeting in Little Rock. All five had already survived a gauntlet of questionnaires, lawyers’ scrutiny, and grillings. The press knew there were meetings but reporters were able only to see the shoes of the contenders under the garage door. Clinton’s choice of Gore was a surprise.

2004: Republican George W. Bush picking Dick Cheney.

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This one comes with a bright asterisk because the process, so orderly and organized in theory, broke down in practice when Bush decided that the man leading his search committee was actually the man he wanted on his ticket—even though he had not been vetted. When Bush tapped Cheney it was the triumph of Bush’s gut over his head. Aides warned him that Cheney brought nothing to the ticket. He had major health issues with his history of heart attacks; he was associated closely with Bush’s father at a time he was trying to emerge from that long shadow; and his home state of Wyoming’s three electoral votes were already assured. But Bush kept pushing Cheney to put his own name on the list. Finally, on the Tuesday before the convention, Cheney relented. Bush understood what Clinton had with Gore—the optics were great. Voters had doubts about Bush’s maturity and his mastery of foreign policy. Cheney immediately reassured those doubters and his strong performance in the VP debate added to the reassurance.

2008: Democrat Barack Obama picking Joe Biden.

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Almost from the moment he secured the nomination, Barack Obama was determined to be thorough in his search for a running mate. He named his selection committee on June 4; conducted focus groups on the possible picks in July; and studied dossiers on the names gathered. But, to the dismay of some of his aides, he kept returning to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the best choice to unite the party. It wasn’t until late July that his aides were able to kill the notion, leaving three possible picks—Delaware Gov. Joe Biden, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. All three were interviewed—Biden in Minneapolis, Bayh in St. Louis, and Kaine in Indiana. The biggest stumbling block was a fear that the always-talkative Biden would be a loose cannon on the campaign trail. Once Biden swore to watch what he said, he was Obama’s choice. And, just as Cheney had reassured Bush skeptics, Biden’s years in Washington and deep foreign-policy credentials were enough to win over voters worried about Obama’s youth and inexperience.

Choices that were flawed:

1972: George McGovern picking Tom Eagleton.

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A sheer disaster, resulting in McGovern having to force him off the ticket after only 18 days and scrambling to replace him with Sargent Shriver. Even before this pick, McGovern was a long shot to defeat President Nixon. But he had no shot after the VP debacle.

McGovern did not secure the nomination until early in the morning and had only hours to pick a running mate and let him write an acceptance speech. He had no search committee, no questionnaires, no vetting. He only had one name, really—he wanted Sen. Edward Kennedy to run with him. But the morning after the nomination, Kennedy firmly rejected the offer. McGovern then started scrambling, meeting with aides, soliciting names, even letting a group that included actress Shirley MacLaine take secret votes on the possible names. Other big names turned McGovern down just as Kennedy had. But, like Kennedy, they often suggested Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri as a good choice. “No, I just don’t know enough about Tom,” demurred McGovern. But with time running out, he relented and offered the job to Eagleton only after being reassured there were no problems that would surface in the campaign.

Big mistake. It only took two days for word of his electric-shock treatments to surface and 16 more days for him to be gone. McGovern later said his biggest regret is that he had not done what he wanted to do—ask CBS anchor Walter Cronkite to be his running mate.

1968: Richard Nixon picking Spiro Agnew.

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Richard Nixon kept telling his aides that he didn’t really need a running mate. He was convinced that he would have to win or lose the race on his own, that any running mate would just detract from his careful campaign to appeal both sides of the ideological divide in the GOP. With that conviction, Nixon spent little time vetting little-known Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, one of his two finalists along with Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe. To keep the South placated, Nixon gave a veto to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. He OK'd Agnew. At noon, on the day of the acceptance address, Agnew accepted. A joke during the campaign, not even his critics knew his lasting vice-presidential legacy would be pleading “nolo contendere” to taking bribes.

2008: John McCain picking Sarah Palin.

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McCain had a search process that looked orderly. But it was anything but. McCain spent most of the preconvention time pushing for a bold pick of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Only a week before the convention, he finally was talked out of it. That left almost no time to come up with the “game-changing” pick he craved. Enter the 44-year-old, first-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, a woman McCain knew only vaguely. On Aug. 27, less than 24 hours before McCain wanted to make his decision, Palin came to Arizona. The campaign team had only begun vetting her. No attention was paid to her readiness for the office or knowledge of the issues. But by the next day, she was McCain’s pick and was readying her campaign debut in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 29. It was a hasty choice that electrified the convention and energized the base. But it was badly handled and was quickly recognized as a mistake by the campaign staff.

1980: Ronald Reagan picking George H.W. Bush.

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This was a good choice arrived at by a really bad process, adding the pick to this list even though Bush went on to serve eight years as vice president and four years as president. In many ways, Reagan was lucky. His haphazard process had given him a good partner, not another Agnew or Eagleton. The cause of the snafu was Reagan’s flirtation with former President Ford, a drama played out quite publicly even as the delegates were nominating Reagan as Ford talked openly about a “copresidency” with the man he defeated four years earlier. Longtime Reagan adviser Richard V. Allen was with Reagan that whole night and was appalled at the copresidency talk and the demands being made by Ford. “In less than 24 hours, Reagan was going to have to go before the convention to announce his vice-presidential nominee,” wrote Allen. “And yet for reasons that to this day remain baffling, not only had Reagan given his political advisers free rein to negotiate with Ford, he had also refrained from initiating conversations with other potential running mates.”

Secretly, Allen called Bush and his people to secure their support for Reagan. When Reagan finally dropped the Ford idea, he initially rejected Bush, saying, “I can’t take him; that ‘voodoo economic policy’ charge and his stand on abortion are wrong.” But by 8 p.m., Bush had pledged his loyalty. It was not until 11:38 p.m. that Reagan relented and called Bush. He then went to the convention hall to announce his most unlikely choice after the messiest of processes.

1984: Walter Mondale picking Geraldine Ferraro.

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As a former vice president who had been through the process himself, Mondale was determined not to embarrass his list of potential picks the way Jimmy Carter had embarrassed his candidates with a highly visible parade to Carter’s home in Plains, Ga. He managed to pull that off. But when it came to his final choice of the little-known congresswoman from New York, the vetting left much to be desired. Like McCain more than two decades later, he was more interested in making a splash and changing campaign dynamics than he was in vetting a historic choice. Aides later said they spent less than two days studying Ferraro’s finances. Big mistake. Those finances became a controversy that never really went away despite the later release of tax documents and a grueling, combative press conference. Ferraro’s husband was real estate investor John Zaccaro and his dealings were both controversial and complex. The euphoria that came with the announcement of the first woman nominee could not overcome the doubts about her finances.