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.
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“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.
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.