The VP search just gets tougher

Times Staff Writer

The resignation of Barack Obama’s “vetter in chief” Wednesday may introduce yet another layer to the already intensive process of identifying a vice presidential candidate -- vetting the vetters.

James A. Johnson, a well-connected Washington political insider, was supposed to help Obama find a running mate whose past would not embarrass the ticket. His sudden resignation amid criticism of his own past financial dealings spotlights just how crucial that role has become.

“The unifying theme at this stage is finding out, and looking for, skeletons that would cause them to rule people out,” said Michael Nelson, a political analyst at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has written extensively about the presidency.


Behind every such worry lies the memory of the seminal moment in vice presidential selection history: the July 13, 1972, conversation between Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton and Frank Mankiewicz, a top advisor to South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern.

McGovern had just narrowly won the Democratic presidential nomination and, after being turned down by a few other contenders, settled on Eagleton as his running mate. Almost as an afterthought, Mankiewicz asked Eagleton “kind of laughingly” whether there was anything in his past that “might give us trouble.”

Eagleton said the closet was empty -- omitting to mention his three hospital stays for psychiatric treatment, including two rounds of electroshock therapy. Two and a half weeks later, McGovern booted Eagleton from the ticket, accelerating an epic election day loss that effectively ended McGovern’s national political career.

“I thought it was a pretty good decision, until it went awry,” Mankiewicz reminisced this week.

Neither campaign of the presumed 2008 nominees -- Democratic Sen. Obama of Illinois and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- would discuss their vetting processes. But it’s safe to assume that they’re embracing a political version of the Hippocratic oath: First, find a running mate who will do no harm.

“The biggest risk is picking a VP with a fatal flaw, which causes the conversation to be diverted onto the VP and his/her weakness, and reflects badly on the management abilities of team Obama or McCain,” political analyst Bruce E. Cain, director of the UC Washington Center, wrote in an e-mail.

With Johnson gone, Obama is now relying on former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President Kennedy, both new to the process. It was unclear whether Obama would replace Johnson, who had previously helped vet running mates for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and John F. Kerry in 2004. McCain gave his search job to former lobbyist and Reagan White House Counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse.

Stringent vetting of running mates began with Jimmy Carter, who ran four years after McGovern and, mindful of the Eagleton fiasco, deputized Charles H. Kirbo, who devised a list of about two dozen questions that he designed in a way to elicit truthful answers from potential candidates.

Each stumble -- including those for posts such as President Clinton attorney general nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, who withdrew over revelations of employing illegal immigrants -- has added to the list.

“It’s gotten increasingly more intense,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a political analyst at St. Louis University School of Law. “The questionnaire now is 60 to 80 questions, many multiples longer than the written questions that Kirbo used, and much more detailed. And it extends to family members.”

In 1984, Geraldine A. Ferraro -- whose appointment was shepherded by Johnson -- initially helped Mondale catch up with Reagan in polling but they soon lagged, in part over questions about her personal finances when her husband, real estate broker John A. Zaccaro, declined to release his tax returns after Ferraro had said he would do so.

And questions about whether Dan Quayle used family connections to avoid military service in Vietnam surfaced after George H.W. Bush hurriedly named Quayle his running mate leading into the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Because the selection of a No. 2 is such a sensitive decision, both Obama and McCain decline to discuss it. Even some past search leaders would not talk, including Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher, who led Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s search teams, and James A. Baker III, who helped with the elder Bush’s search.

But Christopher wrote about his experience in his 2001 memoir, “Chances of a Lifetime,” describing almost two months of interviews, background checks and debates over the political pros and cons until he settled on five people who underwent even more intense scrutiny.

“They would complete a detailed questionnaire, submit tax returns and medical records, and give us access to confidential records,” Christopher wrote, adding that a lawyer would then analyze the material. “We had designed the process to prevent the kind of surprises that had emerged in the Tom Eagleton, Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle cases.”

And with the Internet, the media and the public now have easy access to many records, making it even more important that the campaigns find the skeletons first.

“It is a better process,” Mankiewicz said. “You got a lot of ways to look into things. . . . You can trace a guy back to his birth.”