The VP Picks: Good And Bad We'll soon know Barack Obama's and John McCain's vice presidential choices, but the verdict on whether the selection was a good one won't immediately be known. Will the running mate be a good campaigner? How will he or she fare in the VP debate? A look at VP picks since 1964 offers clues to what to look for.
NPR logo The VP Picks: Good And Bad

The VP Picks: Good And Bad

There was no such thing as vetting of a VP back when Spiro Agnew, who was taking bribes while governor of Maryland, was picked for the ticket. hide caption

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The naming of Ferraro in 1984 was historic, but her husband's finances proved to be a distraction for Walter Mondale and the Dems. hide caption

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Sixteen years ago today, the GOP national convention in Houston renominated the Bush-Quayle ticket. hide caption

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A look at the buzz surrounding possible VP choices. hide caption

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Pick up any review about what's important in naming a vice presidential running mate and invariably you'll see the quote that he or she should "do no harm."

Given all the ink that's been spent on speculating whom Barack Obama or John McCain will select, that's a pretty thin requirement. But there's truth to it. In the long run, the argument goes (one with which I agree), people vote based on the presidential candidate, not the VP.

So, as long as the pick is not controversial or does not cause a distraction, that is a good thing. And if the choice actually helps? Well, that's a bonus!

We are presumably days, if not hours, away from when Obama announces his running mate. In last week's column, I predicted that the choice would be Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. He traveled with Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan in July. Reed is a West Point graduate, former Army paratrooper and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning (showing the "judgment" that Obama used to talk about when contrasting himself with Hillary Clinton). Reed played a leading role in the Senate's passage of the housing bill, with particular concern on how home foreclosures are devastating families. He has the foreign policy gravitas that could help fill the gap in Obama's resume.

Problems? Well, he says he doesn't want it. He's also 5 feet, 7 inches tall, which might matter in the event McCain picks, say, Andre the Giant as his running mate. Some dismiss Reed by saying that (1) Obama is going to win Rhode Island anyway and (2) the state has but four electoral votes. But to suggest that this would be part of Obama's calculation for picking Reed would be silly; no one ever said that George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney in 2000 because of Wyoming's three electoral votes.

Wait. As head of the Bush vetting team, Dick Cheney picked Dick Cheney, no?

In any event, we are likely to learn the answer pretty soon.

But the verdict on whether the choice was a good one or not won't immediately be known. Will the running mate be a good campaigner? How will he or she fare in the VP debate? (Forget about whether the choice will help bring a state to the mix; that really is an oversimplification of what a No. 2 is supposed to accomplish. Lyndon Johnson did, after all, help bring Texas to Jack Kennedy and the Democrats in 1960, but what running mate since then has made a real difference geographically?)

LBJ may have been a good pick for JFK, but the record for subsequent No. 2s is a bit mixed. Here's our scorecard:


Democrat: President Lyndon Johnson, without a vice president since he succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy in 1963, named Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, the Senate majority whip, at the convention. He said Humphrey was best qualified to become president should something happen to him. Humphrey was a dedicated liberal and anti-communist who hoped to be the running mate in 1956 and who also sought the Democratic nomination for president four years later. Verdict: PLUS.

Republican: Sen. Barry Goldwater may have picked Rep. William Miller (NY), the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee — who had already announced his decision to retire in '64 — because as an Easterner and Roman Catholic, he would bring geographical and religious balance to the GOP ticket. Or, as Goldwater said on more than one occasion, he picked Miller because "he drove LBJ nuts." Ultimately, though, Miller was a nonfactor in the election, in which the GOP was buried in November. In fairness, no one was going to help Goldwater that year. Verdict: MINUS.


Republican: It's not clear whether Richard Nixon even met Spiro Agnew before choosing him as his running mate. Agnew, elected governor of Maryland in 1966 as a liberal, moved steadily to the right in 1968, especially since Agnew's original choice for the White House, New York's Nelson Rockefeller, dillydallied on deciding whether to run. Agnew also received national attention when he directly criticized black leaders in Maryland in the wake of the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That apparently won the notice of Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and John Tower (R-TX), who urged Nixon to go with Agnew — which he did, one day after Agnew nominated him for president at the convention. Of course, this was in the day when vetting potential VP picks was unheard of; had anyone done an investigation of Agnew, they might have learned about his involvement in taking bribes — an activity that began even before his governorship, when he was Baltimore county executive. But Agnew did provide the red-meat rhetoric Nixon clearly sought in his running mate. Verdict: MINUS.

Democrat: Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine may have been just as much of a national political unknown as Agnew was, but he was considered a serious and thoughtful, if colorless, legislator. And while Humphrey took a pounding, mostly from the left, during that divisive general election campaign, Muskie won respect from both wings of the party throughout the fall. Verdict: PLUS.


Democrat: If no running mate was going to help Barry Goldwater in 1964, the same could be said about whomever George McGovern was going to select in 1972. Still, the revelation by Sen. Thomas Eagleton (MO) — just two weeks after he was picked — that he had been treated for depression with electroshock therapy and was hospitalized several times in the early 1960s threw the party for a loop. McGovern may have famously said he was "1,000 percent" for Eagleton, but there was tremendous pressure on Eagleton to withdraw ... which he did, 17 days after being named to the ticket. Verdict: MINUS. The Democratic National Committee then named Sargent Shriver as Eagleton's replacement; Shriver was a nonfactor for the rest of the campaign. McGovern had tried to entice other Dems onto the ticket, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, but they all said no. Verdict: MINUS.


Democrat: If Jimmy Carter was an outsider, from the South, with anti-establishment credentials, Sen. Walter Mondale (MN), a big-government liberal and a member of the "club" in good standing, was the perfect counterbalance. Though Carter was to have a strained relationship with many Democrats in Congress, they never lost their respect for Mondale. He also was a clear winner in his VP debate against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Verdict: PLUS.

Republican: In choosing Dole as his running mate, President Ford did not focus on geographical or ideological balance. He was looking for a take-no-prisoners conservative battler who would appeal to the supporters of defeated presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. But Dole's performance in his debate with Mondale was seen as a disaster, notably his description of the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as "Democrat wars." Verdict: MINUS.


Republican: Ronald Reagan may have campaigned as a steadfast conservative. But in choosing George Bush as his running mate, he showed his pragmatic side. Bush was a conservative but in the moderate mode, and the Reagan-Bush ticket unified the party. It was the first time a GOP ticket comprised rivals for the nomination since 1944, when New York Gov. Thomas Dewey chose John Bricker, his counterpart from Ohio. Verdict: PLUS.


Democrat: Walter Mondale may have thrown a Hail Mary pass with his selection of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (NY) as his running mate, the first woman in history to appear on a major-party ticket. But the history of the moment, and the ecstatic response the choice received from feminist groups, soon gave way to troubling news about the financial affairs of Ferraro's husband. In the end, though, no one can claim that the distraction about Ferraro's husband is what did in Mondale — who lost 49 out of 50 states to President Reagan. But a distraction it was. Verdict: MINUS.


Republican: On paper, Vice President George Bush's argument for selecting Sen. Dan Quayle (IN) made sense. He was young, but not Jack Kemp; he was Midwest, but not Bob Dole. And he had the reputation of being a giant killer, having toppled Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh in 1980. But just as Ferraro's family finances were not properly vetted by the Dems in '84, the process by which Quayle joined the National Guard in the middle of the Vietnam War, and the family connections he used to get him there, became the story from Day 1. And his performance against Democratic VP pick Lloyd Bentsen in their debate has forever been described as a "deer in the headlight" moment. With the Bush-Quayle ticket winning 40 out of 50 states in November, it became one of the instances in which a ticket won despite the VP candidate. Verdict: MINUS.

Democrat: Since the Boston-Austin axis worked for Kennedy and Johnson in 1960, there was no reason for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis to think it wouldn't work again when he picked Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. And while Bentsen won plaudits with his handling of GOP rival Dan Quayle during his famous "You're No Jack Kennedy" debate performance, some in the party felt that Bentsen was a wrong fit from the beginning: He differed from Dukakis on many issues, and he was too far to the right for many progressives in the party to accept. And, unlike the 1960 comparison, Bentsen failed to bring along his home state of Texas. Many Republicans suggested that before Dukakis debated Vice President Bush, he might have to settle his differences with Bentsen. Verdict: MINUS.


Democrat: Bill Clinton abandoned conventional wisdom when he selected Sen. Al Gore as his running mate. Rather than seek any kind of geographical, ideological or demographic balance, the Arkansas governor instead picked someone very similar to himself: a young moderate from nearby Tennessee. One way they differed: While Clinton had the reputation as being a draft-dodging womanizer, Gore served in Vietnam, and his wife was a promoter of "family values." Verdict: PLUS.


Republican: Plain and simple, Bob Dole selected, in Jack Kemp, someone he didn't agree with or especially like. They ran against each other for the nomination in 1988 and were on opposite sides of the deficit reduction vs. supply-side economics debate. But Dole, running behind President Clinton all year, decided that he needed to go for broke. Kemp distinguished himself neither on the campaign trail nor in his debate with Vice President Gore. Verdict: MINUS.


Republican: Dick Cheney may be among the least popular vice presidents of all time. But in 2000 he provided the foreign policy experience sorely needed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in his search for a running mate. Actually, Cheney had been in charge of the VP selection committee, until he selected himself. But it was a choice that was heralded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Eight years is a long time ago. Verdict: PLUS.

Democrat: Al Gore was tormented by how to deal with President Bill Clinton in 2000. The incumbent remained very popular, but Gore — searching for swing voters who may have been put off by Clinton's behavior issues — seemed determined to make a statement. He named Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), the first Jew to run on a major-party ticket — but more important, someone who had publicly and forcefully denounced Clinton's conduct in the aftermath of l'affaire Lewinsky. But if he also picked Lieberman to be an attack dog, he was sorely mistaken. Lieberman went out of his way to be nice, including during his debate with Cheney. And there's no telling how many voters who felt Clinton was a net positive for the party were alienated by Lieberman's selection. Verdict: MINUS.


Democrat: To say that John Edwards was not a successful vote getter during the Democratic primaries would be an understatement; he won only one state, South Carolina, where he was born. But he had a winning campaign style, and presidential nominee John Kerry, despite some personal misgivings, picked him to fill the ticket. Still, Edwards failed to bring in any Southern state to the Democratic column, and many partisans felt he was insufficiently aggressive in his debate against Vice President Cheney. Verdict: MINUS.

P.S. Several people wrote in to second our prediction of Jack Reed, including Ted Rao of Albany, N.Y.; Ronald May of Jerusalem and Darrell West, the Rhode Island political guru at Brown University who recently moved to D.C. to become the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER: Lots of reaction to last week's column on the John Edwards affair and the media's response to it. Many accused me of a double standard for writing of the Edwards saga and not about the adultery committed by John McCain decades ago that led to the end of his first marriage. That was my point from the beginning; the issue was not outing everyone who has been unfaithful. McCain's sin apparently occurred when he returned from captivity in Hanoi — well before his political career got off the ground — and certainly not when he was running for president, when he could have brought his entire party down with the revelation of his affair. But for some people, writing about the transgressions of a Democrat should have been met with an equal writing about the transgressions of a Republican. That was exactly the opposite of the point I was trying to make.

Some writers, on the other hand, were quite positive about the column. Audrey Ahmann of Waitsburg, Wash., writes that she appreciates my "thoughtful column on this topic and NPR's general reluctance to report on tabloid issues." These stories, she continues, "reveal not the human frailty of the politician, but their inability to react correctly in a crisis. Edwards, like Bill Clinton, could have admitted his failings from the beginning and moved forward. It is troubling that their first reactions are so dishonest, and it is this that makes it newsworthy."

"What amazes me the most," writes Carol Smolinski of Kenosha, Wis., "is that it truly seems to be that Edwards felt he was above it all, in the same vein as Jimmy Swaggart — just another cheesy, wrinkled work-out suit limping down the road. How dare he challenge the rest of the country to shape up morally."

Phil Lentz of New York City adds, "I think you are dead-on about the coverage of the Edwards affair. The criticism of the mainstream media for not covering the scandal is unwarranted. The truth is that unless one of the two principals confirms on the record that there is, or was, an affair, it's all rumor and speculation."

And Eugene Brown, a member of the Durham, N.C., City Council, calls last week's column a "good and insightful article": "There are some attorneys here who are talking about a class action lawsuit against [Edwards]. If he would have won the nomination, we Dems would have been in deep do-do in the November election."

Some readers placed much of the blame on Edwards' wife, Elizabeth. Lori Dean of Atlanta writes, "If Elizabeth Edwards knew about the affair since 2006 and still encouraged her husband's presidential candidacy, then she is just as bad an enabler as he is, proving herself to be so power hungry that not even a betrayal would be enough to halt their ambitions." Adds David Ogden of Walnut Creek, Calif., "You left out one key issue in the Edwards debacle: his lying, which included the sainted Elizabeth participating in the cover-up."

Less certain about it all was Glenn Schmid of Phoenix. "I don't care what he or she does in private, between consenting adults, even if it is a morally wrong choice, because I want that freedom for myself, and so how can I deny it to someone else? Having said that, do I want to know when someone I am about to trust with the leadership of my country demonstrates beyond a doubt that they (a) lack morals, (b) are a liar, and (c) can't be trusted? Hell, yes. So where does that leave me? I don't know."

Storm Russell of Moss Beach, Calif.: "Had he been elected president, and someone threatened to blackmail him, what is there that you think he would not have sacrificed to avoid the incalculably more important damage to be done to him and the country to avoid its revelation? The fact is, fairly or otherwise, public figures cannot have a completely private life when they do anything that can have a huge impact on the public."

Finally, Ira Friedman of Munich, Germany, wanted to know "if there is any chance that Rielle Hunter [Edwards' former girlfriend] was working for and being paid by the Republicans to trap John Edwards." I have no idea, but I tend to doubt it. But it did strike me as suspicious that when Edwards was lured to the hotel where Hunter was staying last month for the purpose, he says, of talking to her, the National Enquirer just happened to be outside the hotel room's door with reporters and cameras. Sounded like a setup to me.

Time for some quick questions and quick answers:

Q: If Joe Biden is Obama's choice for vice president, can he still run for re-election to the Senate at the same time, as Lloyd Bentsen did in 1988? - Gus Sperrazza, Washington, D.C.

A: Yes, following in the footsteps of not only Bentsen but of Joe Lieberman (2000) and Lyndon Johnson (1960). The same goes for another potential VP candidate who is running for re-election to the Senate this year, Jack Reed of Rhode Island. One difference between the two: Delaware, Biden's state, has a Democratic governor. Rhode Island does not.

Q: Before Mark Warner, the convention keynote speaker who is running for the Senate from Virginia, and Barack Obama, the keynote speaker four years ago who was running in Illinois, who was the last convention keynoter who was seeking a Senate seat in the same year? - Karen Myers, Lincoln, Neb.

A: While Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and John Pastore of Rhode Island, the respective Democratic keynoters in 1968 and 1964, were running for the Senate in those years, they were already the incumbents — unlike Warner and Obama. The last nonincumbent senator before 2004 was Arthur Langlie, the governor of Washington and keynote speaker at the 1956 Republican convention who was the GOP nominee against Sen. Warren Magnuson (D) that year.


Aug. 25-28 — Democratic National Convention, Denver.

Aug. 26 - Primaries in Alaska, where the indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is up for re-election, and Florida.

Aug. 27 - Lyndon Johnson's 100th birthday.

Aug. 29 - John McCain turns 72.

Sept. 1-4 - Republican National Convention, St. Paul, Minn.

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******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Republican delegates at the party's national convention in Houston nominated President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle for a second term (Aug. 20, 1992).

Hope to see you in Denver and/or St. Paul!

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