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VP picks: once the province of party bosses

I had another very informative exchange over the weekend with vice presidency scholar Joel Goldstein of St. Louis University — at least it was full of the kind of historical context that I value.

For example, under the pressure of my brilliant and incisive emailed queries, Goldstein (author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution) confided that:

"As a general proposition, presidential candidates had relatively little to do with the selection of the running mate until 1940."

The vice presidential nomination was made, usually on the last day of the convention, by the delegates under the guidance of the party bosses. They were often motivated by concerns of party unity, regional balance, rewarding particular factions. Running mates were, in some instances, absurdly unqualified to be president.

It would be hard to top Chester A. Arthur, who, before he was placed on the Repub ticket as James A. Garfield's running made in 1880, had held no public position higher than inspector of the port of New York, a position famous for making its occupant wealthy through graft.


Garfield, a compromise candidate at the convention who had little to do with the choice of his running mate, had even less use for Arthur and wouldn't allow him in the White House. But then, wouldn't you know it, Garfield was assassinated (by a deranged former supporter and frustrated office seekers, who actually said that he was motivated to make Arthur president). And then, wouldn't you know it, Arthur turned against his corrupt former associates, became a pretty good president, and is considered the father of the modern civil-service system. And then, wouldn't you know it, Arthur became that rare case of an incumbent president who was denied his own party's nomination for another term (he was defeated at the 1884 convention by his own secretary of state, James G. Blaine, who went on to lose the election). But I digress, big time, from my exchange with Prof. Goldstein, who didn't mention Arthur at all. Just thought you'd like to know that tale.

The big breakthrough in the presidential candidate's control over the choice of running mate occurred in 1940, Goldstein said.

Franken D. Roosevelt had become a big admirer of his agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace, and wanted Wallace as his third-term running mate. Wallace was viewed as a dangerous lefty, even a communist sympathizer, by some factions in the party.

But FDR, Goldstein said, "made having Henry Wallace as his running mate a condition of running again. He got Wallace, but Wallace was so unpopular that he couldn't speak to the convention.  Four years later, party bosses dumped Wallace."

The choice of Missouri Sen. Harry Truman as FDR's fourth-term running mate was made by the party bosses, with FDR's acquiescence. (And wouldn't you know it, Truman became president soon after the inauguration, upon Roosevelt's death. Wallace ran against Truman for president in 1948 under the banner of the Progressive Party, a party that had formed around Wallace. He finished a distant fourth.

The 1940 experience did not immediately and permanently end the power of the party bosses over the choice of running mates, although things moved fairly steadily in the direction of the presidential nominee making the pick.

One last big exception occurred on the Dem side in 1956, when the nominee, Adlai Stevenson, specifically threw the choice of the veep candidate open to the convention floor, which resulted in open campaigning between Tennessee Sen. Este Kefauver, young Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy and Minnesota's own Sen. Hubert Humphrey. It took three ballots (JFK led on the second ballot) but Kefauver achieved the winning majority on the third. The Stevenson-Kefauver ticket lost to Eisenhower-Nixon. JFK's credible run for the veep spot, and his classy concession speech, were a big step up in national visibility for JFK, who later went on to ...

Of local note, Goldstein wrote me:

"When Stevenson threw the '56 choice to the convention it came as a surprise and devastated HHH who hoped, and thought, Stevenson would choose him and knew he couldn't compete at the convention with JFK and Kefauver."

Lastly I asked Goldstein when the fairly recent practice began of candidates who had locked up their party's nominations for president introducing their choice before the convention. My memory had played tricks on me and I thought it started at least with Carter-Mondale in 1976. But no, Goldstein replied:

"Actually, Carter announced Mondale on day four of the convention.  In 1980, Reagan announced Bush, after negotiating with Ford, at the convention. 

"Mondale-Ferraro was the first preconvention announcement
(other than instances when an incumbent VP was retained) and since then Democrats have always announced preconvention.  The first GOP preconvention announcement was in 96, Dole-Kemp.  All have been within a week of the convention except in '04 when Kerry announced his choice of John Edwards 20 days before the convention."

(This helpful Congressional Quarterly link has chapter and verse. [PDF])

Goldstein: "The Quayle rollout was about the only thing the Bush campaign executed poorly in 1988.  Quayle was notified, while lunching with his wife, to get over to the spot where Bush's boat would dock in New Orleans to join Bush for the announcement. He fought his way through a big crowd and finally got to the boat.  Apparently with no advanced preparation, he came across as overeager, enthusiastic and not very presidential. Then when the National Guard story came out the Bush people were not prepared to deal with it. Not an optimal rollout. But Bush gave a very effective convention speech to salvage the convention and his standing. Mondale-Ferraro and Clinton-Gore were very effective rollouts.  Mondale was actually a little ahead of Reagan, I believe, based on his convention bounce. The Clinton-Gore combination created a visual image and enthusiasm which I suspect was beyond what Clinton and his people ever anticipated."

If you care to peruse a piece Prof. Goldstein wrote for the excellent History News Network about why both Obama and McCain will choose running mates who are thoroughly "presidential," it's right here.

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