These are dull days for political junkies. At minimum, Mitt Romney is more than a month away from wrapping up the Republican nomination, but the drama of the GOP primary has evaporated. Pundits and observers need to chew on some morsel of intrigue as Romney works to jettison the “presumptive” tag. And so the veepstakes chatter has begun. The vice-presidential selection process has long been one of Washington’s favorite parlor games. But in the post-Palin era, the process has taken on added weight. Which means the Republicans whom Romney short-lists are signing up for what is sure to be a rigorous dissection of their lives. “If presidential campaigns are M.R.I.’s for the soul,” wrote the New York Times’ Dick Stevenson, “vice-presidential vetting this year will be a body-cavity search.”
It wasn’t always so. In the earliest days of the Republic, the nation’s second-highest office was a consolation prize for the presidential runner-up. (The verb, as Slate explains, was plucked from the realm of animal medicine and popularized by the British in the mid-20th century.) The framers created the vice presidency almost as an afterthought, vesting in it scant powers and delineating no procedure to fill a vacancy. (The oversight had long-lasting consequences; as late as the 1940s, Harry Truman went nearly a full term without a No. 2.) The first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, viewed the post as a sinecure, spending much of their time gaming out their next runs and formalizing parliamentary procedure.
The latter’s successor, Aaron Burr, was awarded the position in 1800 after the two deadlocked in the Electoral College, forcing the House to pick the President. Burr subsequently became something of a political liability after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel; the episode prompted Jefferson to drop him from the ticket in the re-elect and Congress to pass the 12th Amendment. “The most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” Adams wrote of the vice presidency, and it stayed that way for a while. John Nance Garner, the first of three VPs to serve under Franklin D. Roosevelt, likened the value of the job to a “bucket of warm piss.”
John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin in 2008 was the first to bomb spectacularly in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, but it was hardly the first to backfire. Even in the era of careful vetting, many have gone badly. Historians date the origins of intensive vetting to 1972, when George McGovern tapped Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri Senator, to fill out the Democratic ticket. It was a measure of the office’s meager prestige at the time that Eagleton was, by McGovern’s recollection, the ninth man offered the job. Soon McGovern was left wishing Eagleton had turned it down as well. Newspaper reports revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression, receiving shock-therapy treatment as well as the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine. The ensuing media scrum forced Eagleton off the ticket and sent McGovern’s campaign into a tailspin. McGovern was routed that November by Richard Nixon, whose own vice president, Spriro Agnew, resigned the following year as part of no-contest plea on charges of tax evasion.
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To avoid such ignominious episodes, Jimmy Carter in 1976 embarked on the most extensive vetting process to date. Carter settled on Walter Mondale, who went on to expand the powers of the office in the White House. But when Mondale later became the Democratic nominee in 1984, his campaign botched the vet. Mondale was keen on a barrier-breaking appointment, and over the course of his search he began leaning toward Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, who would become the first female vice-presidential candidate. At the last moment, however, Mondale opted instead for Geraldine Ferraro; according to some reports, his aides had concerns the financial entanglements of Feinstein’s husband. Ferraro’s vetting lasted a frenzied 48 hours. (“Here goes,” he reportedly said when he picked up the phone to inform Ferraro of his decision.) Within days, controversy exploded around her husband’s financial affairs, plunging the campaign into disarray that ended with a landslide loss.
Even successful campaigns have been beset by vetting malfunctions, oddities and anguish. In 1988, George H.W. Bush offered the job to Dan Quayle, a Senator beloved by the conservative base, without formally interviewing Quayle. Twelve years later, Bush’s son asked Dick Cheney to head up the selection process, which ended in Cheney himself getting the job. Both Al Gore and Joe Biden were regarded as reasonable choices, but each clashed at times with the top of the ticket.
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Their sparring was nothing compared to the strife that has scarred losing campaigns. In 2004, John Kerry launched an exhaustive search, led by Washington hand Jim Johnson, that culminated in the selection of John Edwards. Kerry was “queasy” about Edwards, his adviser Bob Shrum later wrote, but chose Edwards anyway after securing a guarantee that he wouldn’t run for President four years later if the duo lost. By Election Day a deep frost had set in between the two, and Shrum recalled that Kerry “wished he’d never picked Edwards, that he should have gone with his gut.” Of course, campaign strategists have a habit of trying to salvage their own reputations by turning the VP pick into a scapegoat. In the aftermath of the Palin debacle, Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace elevated the practice to an art form, skewering the former Alaska governor so severely that their accounts became the basis of a book (co-authored by TIME’s Mark Halperin) and movie (produced by HBO, a division of Time Warner, which owns Time Inc.).
It’s hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Romney. McCain loved the romance of risk, while the former Massachusetts often seems at war with it. Romney’s is a plodding, methodical campaign, patterned after its data-driven candidate. This style has invited suggestions that Romney himself is robotic or inauthentic. But if there is one arena where caution is an asset in presidential politics, it is in the vetting of a vice president–the first test of whether a nominee has the judgment to hold the highest office.