Summer is a time of many American traditions, from family vacations to the Fourth of July. But there are two big events that we add to that list every four years: the Summer Olympics and the time-honored tradition of finding out who our presidential candidates have selected as their choice for a vice president -- otherwise known as the "Veepstakes."
I have always been fascinated by this particularly American phenomenon. It is, by turns, both a highly secretive and very public ritual. And it has produced some great future leaders of the country as well as some memorable train-wrecks.
The stakes are always high. For the would-be presidential nominee, it is the first major decision that the public can weigh to assess the judgment of the person who may become the leader of the free world. And for the Veepstakes contenders themselves -- whether they are ultimately selected or not -- it is a window into how they handle the scrutiny and pressure of being "under consideration," which can have huge implications for their future national political aspirations. As for the candidates' advisors, their participation and advice in the selection process may make all the difference between landing in an office with a view of the Rose Garden and having the future president's ear, or being relegated to a cubicle in the basement.
With the process currently underway for choosing who will be on the Romney ticket, I thought it would be great to take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights of this venerable American custom. I remember well a few of those moments -- the excitement I felt about Walter Mondale's groundbreaking selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984; the energy generated by Bill Clinton's selection of Al Gore in 1992, creating a team of "Young Guns," as Newsweek magazine branded them on its cover. I also remember that chaotic scene in New Orleans harbor, as George Bush announced his selection of a young and unprepared Dan Quayle as his second-in-command.
I think you'll enjoy the slideshow below. These are some of my favorite Veepstakes moments, so I hope you'll let me know if I missed any of yours. Every election season brings with it countless big and small moments that determine who will win the race for the White House in 2012 -- but surely the Veepstakes ranks at the top as a major event to watch.
When John McCain chose little-known Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice-presidential candidate, he had no idea that she would become a national phenomenon, essentially eclipsing him and his presidential campaign. From the beginning, she was a divisive lightning rod - beloved by some and derided by others. Relying heavily on her folksy, "hockey mom" persona, she inspired millions of conservative voters, but also became heavily lampooned for her speaking style, her frequent gaffes in the media, and her soap-opera-worthy family dramas. Tina Fey's hilarious impersonation of her on "Saturday Night Live" ("I can see Russia from my house!") prompted Palin herself to appear on the program.
Considered a rising political star when he was selected by John Kerry as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2004, John Edwards watched his promising career plummet four years later, while pursuing his own bid for the presidency. He became a tabloid staple for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife with a campaign videographer, having that woman's baby out of wedlock, and then being indicted by a Federal grand jury for allegedly using campaign funds to conceal the sordid matter. (The judge in that case ultimately declared a mistrial; and the government chose not to retry Edwards.) What was once a political career brimming with potential ended up a tangled, scandalous mess.
Dick Cheney was a veteran of politics, having served under Nixon, Ford and George Bush Sr., by the time he was tapped to become George W. Bush's Vice-Presidential candidate in 2000. He served two terms alongside the President and became known as a vigilant leader of the neoconservative movement and a fierce attack dog when it came to confronting the President's political adversaries. Often considered divisive, his chilly demeanor is said to have humanized Bush by comparison. Little-known fact: Cheney served as "Acting President of the United States" for two hours and 15 minutes on June 29, 2002, while George W. underwent a colonoscopy. As seen in this picture they always seemed to be in lockstep.
When Bill Clinton became the Presidential nominee in 1992, the Democratic base was energized by the idea of a new generation in America politics. And when Clinton selected Al Gore as his running mate, that buzz only increased as Newsweek magazine dubbed them "The Young Guns." They were the first generation of politicians to have come of age in the '60s, and Al Gore came across as an intelligent, thoughtful, educated Vice-Presidential candidate - a stark contrast to the hapless Dan Quayle who had been the butt of satirical humorists for four years. Together the team would sweep to victory and inhabit the White House for the next eight years. In 2000, Gore lost his own bid for the presidency to George W. Bush in one of the closest races in US history.
In the 1992 election, independent candidate Ross Perot chose a decorated war hero, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, to be his running mate. Stockdale was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the US Navy, but despite his impressive career up until that point, Stockton unfortunately turned up at the Vice Presidential debates woefully underprepared. He was unfamiliar with the TV format, his hearing aid was not turned on, he seemed disoriented and his cringe-worthy performance was seen by millions. He -- and his reputation -- never fully recovered from his opening lines, "Who am I? Why am I here?" Perot and Stockdale went on to receive just 19% of the general vote.
When George H. W. Bush selected Dan Quayle, a little-known Senator from Indiana, to be his running mate in 1988, it was thought that he would provide an injection of youth and vigor into Bush's political campaign. But during the Vice-Presidential debates, when the relatively inexperienced Quayle compared his own experience to that of John F. Kennedy, his Democratic opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, famously quipped, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Though the Bush-Quayle team won the election, Quayle became one of the most ruthlessly lampooned Vice Presidents in history for saying things like, "Welcome to President Bush, Mrs. Bush, and my fellow astronauts," and "We don't want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward."
Before becoming the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan. He had been President Ford's Envoy to China, and the head of the CIA before unsuccessfully running for the presidency himself in 1980. But when Ronald Reagan became the Republican nominee that year, he tapped Bush to join him on the ticket. Considered a safe choice as vice president, Bush kept a fairly low profile during his eight years as second-in-command. He went on to succeed Reagan as president from 1989 to 1993, winning praise from Americans for his leadership during the Gulf War. But during his second run for the presidency in 1988, he was viewed as old-school out-of-touch -- particularly when compared to the brash young team of Clinton and Gore -- and lost the election. His eldest son, George W. Bush, was elected to the presidency eight years later.
Geraldine Ferraro became the first female Vice-Presidential candidate for a major party in the United States when Democrat and former Vice President Walter Mondale selected her to join his ticket in his 1984 run for office. Mondale's campaign was lagging at the time and it was hoped that the choice of a female running mate would inspire and ignite the democratic base, but despite mostly favorable press coverage, the team was unable to prevail and would eventually lose the election by a landslide to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Even so, her candidacy was a significant milestone that helped pave the way for future generations of women in politics.
In 1973, after President Richard Nixon all but abandoned his first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and helped force his resignation from office after he was charged with tax evasion and money laundering, Nixon chose Gerald Ford to fill his role. But by August 9, 1974, Nixon himself was forced to resign from the presidency following the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford became President. This unlikely sequence of events made Gerald Ford the first and only US President not to have been elected Vice-President or President by the Electoral College.
In the age of "Camelot," no one paid too much attention to John F. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Baines Johnson as his Vice-Presidential running mate on 1960. But when Kennedy was assassinated after serving just over 1,000 days in office, Johnson suddenly found himself President in one of the country's most tumultuous and volatile periods in history. Underestimated by many, he proved to be a staunch advocate for civil rights, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put an end to segregation in schools, work sites and public places. He also declared an "unconditional war on poverty" and promoted scientific research. However, his decision to increase the number of troops in Vietnam, is seen by many as his tragic undoing.
Although Richard Nixon served two terms as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 to 1957), he was almost dropped from the ticket in '52, when a scandal emerged regarding a secret political fund he was said to have hidden. He went on television and gave his famous "Checkers" speech (which referred to his family dog) to the largest TV audience of its day, and remained on the winning ticket. Eisenhower entrusted Nixon with critical assignments in foreign and domestic affairs. On one trip to Russia, Nixon attended the American National Exhibit and famously engaged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a televised "Kitchen Debate," arguing the merits of capitalism over communism. There would be an eight-year gap between the end of Nixon's vice-presidency and his own presidency, which famously ended with his resignation.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Missourian Harry Truman to be his third vice president during his fourth term as commander in chief, he pointedly did not include Truman in his inner circle of advisors. Consequently, when Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945, Truman assumed the presidency relatively unprepared for his role. Although his seven years in office (he finished out Roosevelt's term and was reelected in 1948) were often spent in conflict with the Republican-led "do-nothing Congress," he went on to become one of our nation's greatest leaders -- integrating the U.S. military, overseeing America's involvement in the Korean War, and even renovating the White House. He also coined the familiar phrase, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
While Abraham Lincoln is revered as one of our nation's greatest Presidents, his Vice-President ranks as one of the worst political train wrecks ever. He was chosen as Vice President in 1864 because he was a Southerner who supported the Union's cause, and it was thought that he might help unify the nation after the Civil War ended. But no one anticipated Lincoln's assassination, and Johnson's presidency was a disaster from the beginning. He was said to be drunk during his inaugural speech, he was considered wildly incompetent and he was eventually impeached.
Although John C. Calhoun was eager and willing to serve the nation as the second in command, his ambition to serve became his downfall in office. Calhoun had been so intent on the vice presidency that before the election he offered his support to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, members of opposing parties. When Adams was elected in 1824, Calhoun eagerly assumed the vice presidential position, despite the fact that the personal politics of Calhoun and Adams couldn't have been more different. Not only was Calhoun pro-slavery, while Adams was an abolitionist, Calhoun went so far as to propose to allow any one state to nullify an Act of Congress in an effort to protect slavery in the South. Calhoun's proposal was rejected by both Northerners and Southerners, and earned him the nickname "Arch Nullifier". Although he remained in office once Andrew Jackson was elected in 1824, it wasn't long before he was a odd with Jackson as well.
Aaron Burr, the nation's third vice president, was largely regarded as a great politician, but unfortunately his political prowess was overshadowed by his role in a number of scandals. Burr was elected vice president in 1800 under Thomas Jefferson after a particularly contentious election that had come down to a tie between Jefferson and Burr. Then in 1804 Burr challenged former Treasury Secretary and Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton to a duel in New Jersey, where Burr subsequently shot and killed Hamilton. Burr was then indicted for murder and fled to the South where it wasn't long before he started to devise a plan to attack the Spanish colony of Mexico. It was rumored that Burr had plans to siege the Spanish colony and start and empire of his own, but his plans were halted in 1807 when he was arrested and charged with treason. And while he was later acquitted of the charges, Burr's name has since been associated with murder and treason.
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