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