Susan Estrich: Picking a Vice President Is Difficult

The vetter got vetted.

The resignation of former Mondale campaign chair and Fannie Mae chief Jim Johnson from Barack Obama’s Vice Presidential selection committee after reports that he may have received a preferential mortgage from Countrywide Financial should not be viewed as a sign that Johnson did anything wrong.

The Wall Street Journal story last week that mentioned his name in connection with possible preferential loans given by his friend, Countrywide chief Angelo Mozilo, has been confirmed by no one. The original story was based on unidentified sources. Johnson himself has denied any wrongdoing, stating that "blatantly false statements and misrepresentations'' have been made about him. At this stage of his life, Jim is rich enough that he hardly needs a mortgage, much less preferential terms on one, to make ends meet.

Still, he did the right thing by resigning, given the “job” he was in. And that’s what makes the job of picking a vice presidential nominee so difficult. If Johnson can’t survive the vetting of the vetter, imagine surviving the process itself. Running for president is easy by comparison.

Having gone through the process first-hand twice in the 1980's, my experience was that the list starts out very long, and ends up very short, not because the world of politics is full of sinners, but because only a saint, or close to one, can survive the kind of scrutiny visited on would-be vice presidents. Add that to the fact that there are lots of good reasons for not wanting the job itself – hello Governor Strickland – and the bottom line is that picking a vice president is, in many respects, tougher than finding a nominee.

Presidential candidates are not required to survive thorough FBI checks. No one asks them about past romances, drug use, draft records, or home loans. Mrs. McCain has yet to release all of her tax returns for the last decade or so and no one is clamoring. Would-be vice presidential spouses get no grace periods.

George W. Bush, candidate for president and then two term incumbent, could get away with saying that he was wild and crazy when he was young, and that is that, but no vice presidential vetter would have accepted such an answer and left him on the list. Exactly how wild, he would have been asked. Crazy in precisely what way? When exactly was the last time you were wild and crazy, and with whom?

John McCain released his medical records to a select group of reporters for inspection months after clinching the nomination. Were he being considered for vice president, I can promise you that the medical advisers to the vetting team would have been interviewing his doctors before his name made it to the second round. Dick Cheney, with his history of heart disease, would never have made it through the process but for the fact that he was running it eight years ago.


There’s precious little evidence that any vice presidential selection in recent decades has actually helped the candidate at the top of the ticket to win the election. It’s an old joke in political circles that when you see one of those “hearbeat away from the presidency” ads, you know the ticket is in trouble.

In 1988, I remember sitting in a restaurant with Bill Clinton across the street from the site of the famous (or, depending on your side, infamous) vice presidential debate, in which the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen flattened then candidate Dan Quayle with his “You’re no Jack Kennedy” waiting for our pollster to call me with the night’s numbers, and playing guessing games about how many points we (the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket) would go up as a result. And I remember just how flattened we felt at the answer: while voters’ opinions of Bentsen went way up as a result of the debate, and while they overwhelmingly favored Bentsen over Quayle (and Dukakis and Bush, for that matter), the “ticket” went up by about one point as a result.

But while picking a qualified and savvy senator like Lloyd Bentsen may not guarantee any lasting bump in the polls, picking a candidate who distracts attention from the main message of the campaign or casts doubt on the judgment of the would-be president is every nominee’s nightmare. The first rule of vice presidential selection, like the Hippocratic oath, is to do no harm.

Easier said than done.

Few people are perfect. Fewer still, of those, become successful politicians.

Ever done anything in your life that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times? What about your spouse? What about your kids and your in-laws?

No vice presidential vetter worth his or her salt will take no for an answer. We want proof. Teams of lawyers and accountants pore over every detail of the would-be candidate’s life. Would-be candidates hire lawyers to work with the nominee’s lawyers. Every word, every record, every transaction, and oh yes, every vote, is scrutinized. Who can survive this kind of scrutiny?
Equally important, who would want to?

Two things happen very quickly once the list gets formed.

First, people start dropping out. This week, it was Ohio Governor Strickland, who after six terms in Congress, is now in a job that he clearly enjoys and, at 67, has no particular reason to assume that the vice presidency would, for him, be a stepping stone to anything but a lot of funerals and ceremonial appearances. Did he really not want the job? That’s my guess. It’s what he’s been saying since the start of this campaign, and it makes perfect sense. And if you don’t want the job, there is no reason in the world to go through the scrutiny.

Second, you start dropping people from the list. Lists are easy to make. But half the people on them aren’t really going to get picked. Because they don’t have enough experience. Because people won’t see them as would-be presidents. Because they have skeletons in their closet which neither they or the vetters ultimaely want to dust off. Because their families value their privacy, or their kids have issues, or their spouses do, or because of who they took money from or did favors for years back.

And so the list gets shorter and shorter. The reason former presidential candidates are popular choices is precisely because of the perception, if not the reality, that they have been through the process. Or at least that the press will treat them that way. No one is going to interrogate Hillary Clinton about her marriage. But she is the only one on Obama’s list who will escape such questions.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for