Just after twilight on July 1, 2004, John Kerry slipped through the garden in the back of his Georgetown town house. Accompanied by a single aide and two Secret Service agents, he walked about 60 feet uphill, crossed a side street, and entered the home of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. There he found a fellow senator, John Edwards, waiting for him.
Edwards had just flown in from a private Florida airfield near Disney World. As Kerry and Edwards began the conversation that persuaded the Massachusetts Democrat to choose the North Carolinian as his running mate, reporters from the major news networks, a wire service, and The New York Times milled about in front of Kerry's house. A source deep within the Democratic advance world had tipped them off that the party's presidential nominee would secretly meet that night with the person he would most likely ask to join his ticket. Kerry returned home by 9 p.m. Shortly afterward, floor by floor, the lights went out. The reporters left. Kerry announced his decision on July 6 on his own terms.
Such secrecy and caution may seem excessive, but the history of the selection of modern-day vice presidential nominees is replete with missteps caused by haste or by presidential candidates' being more consumed with political calculations than the prerequisites of the nation's second-highest job. Even though John McCain and Barack Obama began their sorting processes with the benefit of hindsight, they are being tempted by the forces that tripped up their predecessors.
Quiet, trouble-free veep searches are the exception. In 1980, Ronald Reagan went through gyrations to avoid choosing rival George H.W. Bush, the runner-up during the Republican primaries. Reagan had doubts about Bush's campaign skills and was still smarting from Bush's denigration of supply-side tax-cutting as "voodoo economics." The nominee's first preference was to negotiate what would have been tantamount to a co-presidency with Gerald Ford. But reaching a mutually acceptable power-sharing arrangement proved impossible, and Reagan and the former president backed away.
Next on Reagan's list, according to Republican consultant Craig Shirley, who is writing a history of the 1980 campaign, was longtime Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a closer friend of Reagan's. But that option made no political sense. In the end, Reagan chose Bush, more of a moderate but someone with strong foreign-policy credentials. Reagan's advisers almost failed to talk archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina out of a convention walkout, but the combo was a winner. And Reagan rewarded his new vice president with a national security portfolio.
In 1984, James Johnson, then campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, helped to oversee a process that was rushed and forced and did not sufficiently vet the family finances of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. (Ferraro's vetting was frantic because Mondale had decided against Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California at the last minute, sources say.) Michael Berman, in charge of checking out Ferraro, remembers the rush to gather information about her and her husband, developer John Zaccaro, just two days before Mondale wanted to announce his decision. More amazing, Mondale chose to be very public about his deliberations, often subjecting his potential choices to joint press conferences after the two had met. Immediately after Ferraro was tapped, nonstop questions about her husband's financial dealings threw the Mondale campaign seriously off-stride. And it never recovered.
The vetting of potential vice presidential candidates has generally been taken quite seriously since 1972, when Democrat George McGovern's first running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, withdrew after newspaper reports disclosed that he had undergone shock treatment during three hospitalizations for depression. All subsequent searches have included detailed questions about psychiatric care. In 1988, Vice President Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate drew ridicule from the day the 41-year-old senator from Indiana was picked--and ire when it was revealed that Bush had not formally interviewed Quayle.
And then there's 2004. Kerry, according to public accounts and several former advisers, had secured Edwards's guarantee that he would assume the traditional No. 2 role as contraster-in-chief and as the attack dog of the Democratic duo. In the view of Kerry's team, Edwards did not fulfill his obligation to show his teeth more than his smile and would not change his stump speech even at Kerry's personal importuning. (Edwards's ex-aides strongly dispute this account.) By Election Day, Kerry was barely speaking to Edwards. Several Kerry advisers, including Bob Shrum, had concluded at the campaign's end that, despite Edwards's purported political assets, Kerry had made a poor choice.
Secrecy and Trust
So what makes a VP search a good one? And at what point can that be determined? Is it once the nation reacts to the nominee's announcement? By that standard, Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore in 1992 was masterful. Yet Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman in 2000 was initially greeted with enthusiasm, largely because the senator from Connecticut was the first Jew on a major party's ticket. Gore's aides, however, found that Lieberman was not as much of a team player as they had expected. Is it on Election Night? Think back to 1960, when John F. Kennedy decided he could stomach running with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who had led a "Stop Kennedy" movement. The Texan helped the Democratic ticket win the Lone Star State--and with it the election. Is it once the choice has served as vice president? Although George W. Bush's selection of his vice presidential search team head, Dick Cheney, led to weeks of distracting questions during the 2000 campaign, once in office, Cheney--even his critics agree--made the vice presidency more powerful than ever before. Or is a selection that creates no unwanted drama good enough? In 1988, political considerations principally motivated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis to select Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. And Bentsen certainly chewed up Quayle during their lone debate.
Some veterans of vice presidential searches counsel the presidential nominee to focus, primarily, on the job of the vice president. Yet neither McCain nor Obama has said much publicly about what he envisions for the next vice president. McCain jokes that the vice president's only real job is to "inquire daily about the health of the president."
Mark Gearan, a key member of the Clinton search team in 1992 who is now the president of Hobart and William Smith colleges, says, "A vice presidency is judged against what strengths they bring to the ticket, to the campaign; how they do in the debates; whether they're the attack dog or truth-sayer; and potentially their service to their administration." But today's vice presidency "is very far away from John Nance Garner. And what the job requires now is a partnership," he added.
The vice president’s only real job is to “inquire daily about the health of the president.”--presumptive GOP nominee John McCain
Garner, who was Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, famously said that the vice presidency was "not worth a bucket of warm piss."
Ever since Jimmy Carter installed Walter Mondale in the White House's West Wing in 1977, "the role of the vice president has become enhanced and become much more critical to any administration," says former Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, who is an Obama adviser and a potential vice presidential nominee. In veep searches since Mondale's vice presidency, said Richard Moe, who helped to vet Clinton's choices in 1992, politics "rarely makes much difference, and it's usually negative."
Advisers to McCain and Obama insist that their party's standard-bearers will pick running mates from positions of strength. Both men, their advisers say, are so secure in their own political identity that it would be folly to make political calculations--what state or voting bloc someone might deliver or alienate--the paramount criteria. "People tend to overthink these things, and we're not going to do that," one senior Obama official said in late May. "This race is going to be Obama versus McCain, and there won't be any distractions from that." The adviser did not elaborate, but the message between the lines suggests that Obama was not necessarily looking for the most politically appealing choice.
That strategy would comport with advice Obama has received from several friends and advisers, including Kerry. In a series of conversations this spring, Kerry imparted lessons to Obama. Kerry declined to talk about his private conversations. But aides and advisers to both men say that Kerry stressed the need to maintain the integrity of the search and the importance of choosing someone the nominee completely trusts.
James Johnson's search process for Kerry in 2004 was a model: careful, exhaustive, secret. Johnson, a former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae who was Mondale's presidential campaign manager, is a consummate Wash-ington insider: He "was very effective about fleshing out issues and details and handling sometimes very sensitive issues. And he did it for me without any leaks, without any injury to any person, without any public disclosures," Kerry told National Journal. "That the candidates themselves knew that the system was airtight helped allay their fears that personal information would be made public. You inevitably come up on things that have never been made public."
Obama wanted his own search team to reflect his values. He began in April by asking Johnson, a major Obama fundraiser and superdelegate wooer, for informal advice--not about names, really, but about a blueprint: how the process should work, what it should entail, and what Johnson, 64, had learned about how to proceed. Johnson's discretion impressed Obama, aides say, as did his bluntness and intelligence. Friends say that Johnson has an encyclopedic mind; he knows the ages and physical maladies of just about every potential vice presidential candidate, both Republican and Democratic. Obama formalized Johnson's role last month, and asked Eric Holder, a deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, and Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy's daughter, to join him in leading the search.
"Obama takes the process very seriously, both for messaging purposes and for practical purposes," a campaign adviser said. Holder and Kennedy are accomplished and smart and aren't window dressing, but Kennedy represents the fusion of Kennedy-era hope with Obama's mantra of "change," while Holder, an African-American, helps to ensure that the process reflects a diversity of views. An aide said that Obama was "of course" aware of Johnson's ties to the home mortgage industry but that that did not influence his decision to add Holder and Kennedy to the team. Obama gave his marching orders: Keep the process secret; no leaks.
“The role of the vice president has become enhanced and much more critical to any administration.”--former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
On June 5, Obama told reporters that "next time you hear from me about the vice presidential selection process will be when I have selected a vice president. And if you hear, you know, secondhand accounts, rumors, gossip about the selection process, you can take it from me that it is wrong because we're not going to be talking about it in the press." When The Wall Street Journal reported on June 7 that Johnson had obtained loans with potentially favorable terms from Countrywide, a home mortgage giant under scrutiny by regulators and Congress, Obama's initial instinct was to defend Johnson from the "game," as he put it during a press conference, of making mountains out of molehills.
But then Obama made what an aide later called a mistake. He played down the significance of the vice presidential vetting process. "Jim Johnson has a very discrete task, as does Eric Holder, and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates," he said. They were unpaid volunteers, Obama continued.
Obama was getting angry at the attention his vetters were receiving, advisers say. On June 9, Johnson and Holder paid the first of several visits to high-ranking Democrats on Capitol Hill. Within minutes, video of the two entering and exiting Senate offices flashed across television screens. The next day, several who had met with Johnson and Holder eagerly hinted at the identities of potential picks.
The meetings on Capitol Hill were nothing unusual; Johnson had done the same thing in 2004 to about the same fanfare. But their timing was terrible. The last thing Obama wanted was for the press to begin speculating about names. Word was passed to Johnson that Obama was unhappy with him because the secrecy of the process had been violated, and by Wednesday morning, Johnson had resigned.
For Obama's search, it wasn't exactly back to square one. Teams that Johnson and Holder had pulled together continued to work. They include veteran Washington lawyers, such as James Hamilton, a white-collar criminal defense attorney at Bingham McCutchen, and Todd Stern, a former White House staff secretary who is now vice chairman of the public policy group at WilmerHale. (Kennedy is helping to interview the candidates and provide advice to Obama. She is not working with the vetting lawyers.)
Despite Johnson's departure, the process will reflect his influence, as well as the lessons drawn from a half-century of vice presidential searches. In 2004, Johnson began the fact-finding process by setting up several different teams to each research some--but not all--potential candidates. Only Kerry, Johnson, and, occasionally, a few other aides had the complete picture. "We compartmentalized it," Kerry recalls. Some presidential nominees want their information all at once, at the end, when everyone has been vetted. But Kerry wanted to know how the potential nominees were faring as they went through the process. "[Johnson] would forward everything to me," Kerry said.
"Very few people within the campaign had any knowledge of what they were doing," said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's deputy campaign manager. Elmendorf had a unique vantage point. He helped to shepherd his longtime boss, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, through his vetting. By mid-June, Gephardt was one of four finalists along with Edwards, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Kerry and Johnson had begun with about 50 names. Then Johnson put together teams of lawyers, paralegals, and computer researchers and unleashed them on open-source searches--of public databases, Google, Nexis. From these came dossiers that were distributed to Kerry and a few members of his team. After this "political vetting," as it came to be known, Kerry winnowed the list to about 15. Each was assigned a team of two or three lawyers. Contenders were asked for references--not only people who could vouch for them but people who would criticize them. Then came the interviews. Johnson, according to sources at the time, had his lawyers use a version of the questionnaire filled out by prospective presidential appointees. Questions ranged from where they went to high school and what their spouses did for a living to when was the last time, if ever, they smoked marijuana. Elmendorf remembers the slightly surreal experience of accompanying Gephardt to the Washington headquarters of a white-shoe law firm and listening as an attorney he did not know asked Gephardt sensitive personal questions. Most of the vetters were senior lawyers at top firms in town; they tended to be virtually unknown in political circles. Many specialized in criminal law. Occasionally, Johnson asked a tax or securities specialist to help his team figure out a particularly intricate point of law.
The final question was always the same: Is there anything else that, if revealed, could cause the presidential nominee any embarrassment? Separately, Johnson turned to longtime friends, such as pollster Ed Reilly, to conduct discreet surveys of how potential running mates would help--or hurt--the ticket. (Although McCain insists that he never seriously considered becoming Kerry's running mate, sources say that Kerry saw private polling data showing him trouncing Bush with McCain on the Democratic ticket.) When Kerry had chosen his finalists, Johnson worked with Kerry's in-house research team to conduct a second political vet. "There's a little bit of disconnect between the legal guys and how a person who has been in the political trenches would approach it," said a veteran of several vice presidential research teams. Johnson did not give these researchers full access to the vetting dossiers; they only saw the lawyer's attempts at political analysis. Meanwhile, Kerry's campaign manager hired a Democratic communications consultant, Jenny Backus, to prepare four separate rollouts--one for each finalist. By the time an amateur pilot glimpsed a freshly stenciled Kerry-Edwards banner on the campaign plane as it sat in a hangar in Pittsburgh, the most tightly guarded vice presidential search process in modern history was complete.
A Jolt of Energy
Unlike Obama, McCain didn't opt for an experienced veep-hunter to head up his search. McCain's choice of lawyer Arthur B. Culvahouse surprised many in Washington, but only because they don't associate Culvahouse with partisan politics. Culvahouse, called A.B. by his friends, came to Washington with Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee. He was last in the spotlight in 1988, when, as Reagan's final White House counsel, he helped prepare Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork for his ill-fated Senate confirmation battle. "He's not a movement conservative," says Craig Shirley, a family friend. "He's extremely well thought of, especially within Republican legal circles, but his approach is going to be methodological. He is right of center, but he is not going to be an ideological person."
Some Democrats have circulated opposition research about Culvahouse's work as a lobbyist, but others laud it, noting that his clients include Democrats. He is very private. One top McCain fundraiser said he has known Culvahouse for years, "but I really don't know him." McCain, campaign aides say, asked Culvahouse to lead his search team on the advice of strategist Charles Black, who generally serves as McCain's chief liaison to the Republican legal and lobbying communities. Unlike the Obama searchers' field trip to Capitol Hill, Republican sources say that Culvahouse has managed to consult with Republican members of the House and Senate in private.
Because many details about the last GOP vice presidential search--when Bush chose his vetter--remain under wraps, Republicans who participated on the 2000 team do not know whether Culvahouse is trying to learn from it. The 1996 search by GOP nominee Bob Dole might be a more useful model, if only because Dole was looking for a younger and healthier running mate.
Roderick DeArment, whom Dole appointed to lead the search, brought in experts from a major accounting firm to look at tax returns, a Federal Election Commission lawyer to look at FEC filings, and even a nurse and a doctor to pore over medical records. The Internet was in its infancy, but DeArment hired an associate to do an Internet search. As Dole settled on a list of finalists, DeArment first interviewed them, then sent them detailed questionnaires. He found himself chasing down leads and rumors.
Dole's original short list did not include his final pick, Jack Kemp. A former Buffalo Bills quarterback and member of Congress, Kemp had been thoroughly vetted by the Dole team. But Dole himself interviewed Kemp just five days before publicly announcing his choice. Kemp was a better fit than the short-list finalists for the signature domestic policy proposal of the campaign: an across-the-board 15-percentage-point cut in marginal income-tax rates. He was also young and charismatic. Advisers hoped he would provide a jolt of energy for a ticket that regularly trailed President Clinton by double digits.
McCain's process is so secretive that his campaign won't even confirm Culvahouse's role. "We don't comment on the vice presidential search," said Steve Schmidt, a McCain campaign adviser. Another aide asked for "no comment" to be off the record.
Internally, fewer than 10 senior staffers are permitted to advise McCain on the selection. Conversations about the process are limited to a circle of five key staff advisers and a few others, including former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Campaign staffers who interact with the press are kept in the dark so that they have plausible deniability.
Nothing has leaked about how many--or which--names are actively being weighed within the McCain campaign. When Johnson and Holder visited Democrats on Capitol Hill last week, they asked for advice on a list of approximately 20 names, including those of senators (Joseph Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut); former senators (Edwards, George Mitchell of Maine, and Sam Nunn of Georgia); governors (Phil Bredesen of Tennessee and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas); and retired generals (Wesley Clark and James Jones).
Some Obama advisers who are not privy to the process have come up with an informal short list based on previous discussions with Obama and informed guesswork. The list includes Sebelius, with whom Obama has a warm and easy friendship; Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, one of the first elected officials to endorse Obama; Daschle, who has become one of Obama's closest advisers; Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who is too politically appealing to avoid vetting; and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, another early endorser whom Obama has grown to admire. Before the campaign clamped down on leaks, Obama's friends said that Clinton remained a remote possibility, but added that her chances could improve if Obama seems to be having trouble uniting the party.
Two associates said that Daschle told Obama months ago that he did not want to be considered, but Daschle told National Journal that he wasn't adamant: "What I said was that I'm not anticipating going back in government. I didn't say I wouldn't do it. I, of course, would consider something if it were offered. But I have absolutely no desire to put my name in consideration." Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are both interested in the job, their advisers say. Dodd recently hired Miles Lackey, who guided Edwards through the process in 2004, as his chief of staff. Edwards has said publicly he doesn't want the job and has told friends he would not accept it. Kerry has his sights set on a national security Cabinet post, according to a close adviser.
In weighing potential VP nominees, political reporters start with politics and end with personal qualities. Obama has been advised to do the opposite. Advisers say that as he thinks about his possible choices, he will first determine whether the person would make a good vice president and, if necessary, a good president; whether the person is someone he could get along with for eight years; and whether the person is trustworthy. Only when Obama is satisfied that the person passes those tests will he begin considering the political angles.
Some friends of McCain believe that he made up his mind about a vice presidential short list a long time ago and is simply going through the motions to satisfy the news media's need to see the slow arc of a purposeful search. Indeed, before the campaign tamped down such talk, advisers and aides freely speculated that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an evangelical Christian, was the odds-on favorite. McCain likes and trusts Pawlenty and is said to think that the governor makes an effective surrogate for the campaign. At least one ex-governor is in the GOP mix. Aides say that McCain has developed a much better relationship with Mitt Romney since the primaries.
Politics may force McCain to broaden his horizons. One of his most senior advisers is pushing McCain to consider picking a woman, perhaps former eBay CEO Meg Whitman or former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Others have advised him to consider a running mate with top-notch national security credentials to strengthen the contention that Obama and his team are dangerously inexperienced. Several in McCain's inner circle want him to seriously consider former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security. Other McCain advisers worry about a massive convention protest if Ridge, who supports abortion rights, were on the ticket. On the other hand, some prominent Democrats, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, think that Ridge could help McCain put Pennsylvania, which went for Kerry, beyond Obama's reach.
So when will the picks be announced? Both campaigns have hinted at early August.
This article appears in the June 21, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.