Comment: Jimmy Carter’s role in creating the modern veepstakes

Carter turned the selection of a running mate into a campaign event, then went with a safe bet.

By Amber Roessner / The Washington Post

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is vetting potential running mates, all women, far more publicly than has been the case in the past. While most recent candidates have gone to great lengths to keep the process secretive, Biden has held open, virtual events with some of the top contenders.

This seems likely to be designed to attract publicity as the novel coronavirus keeps Biden off the road. It is a tried and true tactic that began with a folksy peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., during the 1970s. Amid the electoral reforms of the era, front-line reporters became key political power brokers, and presidential candidates, like Jimmy Carter, attempted to drive the media narrative with enhanced showbiz-inspired techniques.

Carter’s campaign staff recognized that the vice presidency had garnered tremendous attention during the 1970s, and not in a good way.

In the summer of 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern’s running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., lasted all of 18 days on the Democratic ticket after evidence emerged that he suffered from severe bouts of depression that had prompted three past hospitalizations and two rounds of electroshock therapy. The following year, Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being charged with felony tax evasion tied to his time as Maryland governor.

Carter’s oldest adviser, Charles Kirbo, wanted to avoid these debacles, so he concentrated on establishing a first-of-its-kind vice-presidential selection committee and vetting process.

This was not just a concern inside the campaign. In June 1976, for instance, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government had released its “Report of the Study Group on Vice-Presidential Selection,” and Carter’s issues staff mulled over this document to inform their own vice-presidential selection process.

Carter was determined not to repeat the mistake of McGovern, the underdog, anti-establishment candidate who failed to properly vet his last-minute choice amid an unexpected refusal from his first choice, party torchbearer Ted Kennedy. Instead, Carter and his staff established a modern vice-presidential selection process, designed to replace the chaotic behind-the-scenes maneuvering in smoke-filled rooms at the convention with a fresh, relatively transparent interview and vetting process that simultaneously fueled a dramatic media narrative in the days leading up to the convention.

Carter’s staff not only succeeded in establishing a successful blueprint for the modern vice-presidential selection process, but also in masterfully creating what Daniel J. Boorstin described as a pseudo-event, or news media spectacle, around the process, harnessing positive press about interviews with vice-presidential hopefuls such as John Glenn, the heroic astronaut turned senator.

However, amid its careful planning, Carter’s campaign ultimately missed an opportunity to affect radical change when it passed over Barbara Jordan, the first African American congresswoman from the Deep South, for Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., the safer choice and an establishment party man. Carter had found him to be “extremely well-prepared” during the interview, based on his knowledge of the former Georgia governor’s campaign autobiography and how their stances aligned on all the campaign issues.

They settled for pre-convention publicity, rather than capitalizing on the very woman who ended up capturing the headlines at the convention itself. In her keynote speech, Jordan inspired the crowd at Madison Square Garden with her assertion that “an American dream … need not be forever deferred.” Subsequently, 11th-hour grass-roots clamoring for Carter to reconsider her as his running mate created a buzz with reporters, who had collectively written off the dull, drama-free convention as a “yawnfest.”

Mondale was a safe bet, but in part because of this, reporters overlooked how he went on to revolutionize the office. After insisting that he was only interested in the role if he could transform it from presidential window-dressing to “a useful instrument of government,” the early 1976 presidential front-runner turned vice president became a key partner and adviser to Carter. Though the traveling press had jokingly referred to the ticket as “Gritz and Fritz,” the Carter-Mondale administration blazed a modern vice-presidential role that would be duplicated by future actors, including George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Biden; something that is often understudied and under-acknowledged.

Even though Carter publicly vetted his running mates for the benefit of front-line journalists, he carefully guarded his selection until the campaign’s self-orchestrated big reveal at the convention. Subsequently, amid dissatisfaction about the dramatic shift in tradition, the vice-presidential selection process became much more opaque and secretive in coming years as candidates tried to build suspense until the appropriate time at the convention.

With the coronavirus-altered campaign trail lacking in conventional drama, Biden has returned to Carter’s campaign playbook.

As Carter and his successors recognized, whom a candidate selects as his or her vice-presidential choice is revealing. The dynamics set the tone for an administration. But regardless of who Biden selects, he should study Carter’s presidential playbook — the successes and failures — particularly his ultimately ineffectual attempts to control the news media narrative.

Of course, as a longtime student of U.S. history and political science, Biden undoubtedly recognizes the importance of the vice-presidential selection and transition processes in contributing to the news media’s initial narrative about an incoming administration and thereby setting the tone for a presidency, and that might just be his ace in the hole.

Amber Roessner is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media and author of “Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign,” published by LSU Press.

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