Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, and Sen. Richard Nixon of California,… (AP File Photo )
The first rule in picking a vice presidential candidate may be “do no harm.” As Mitt Romney prepares to roll out his pick for No. 2, it’s not a bad time to recall all that can go wrong.
VP choices can run off the rails from a candidate’s native flaws, but at least as often because the teams that nominate them fail to thoroughly investigate for shortcomings or to prepare No. 2 for the withering odyssey of the modern campaign.
Here are the six most problematic vice presidential nominations of the last six decades, ranked in reverse order of the least to the most problematic, for the VP pick and the ticket they helped form:
6. Adm. James Stockdale. Picked as independent Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, the heroic former Vietnam prisoner of war famously lost focus during a nationally televised debate. "Who am I? Why am I here?" Stockdale said, echoing thoughts that ran through many voters’ minds. The fleeting third-party candidacy was never going to help also-ran Perot in an election won by Bill Clinton, and ultimately it would not tarnish the legacy of Stockdale, an erudite man and former naval aviator who withstood years of torture to mold his fellow war prisoners into a band of brothers. Lesson: Heroism and politics don’t go hand in hand.
5. Richard Nixon. Dwight Eisenhower tapped the junior senator from California as his running mate in 1952, but a furor arose over whether Nixon granted favors to campaign contributors. Ike was thinking of dropping Nixon from the ticket until his pick went on television to address the charges. In the famous “Checkers Speech,” Nixon talked about his wife, Pat, not wearing mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” He vowed he would not give up one political gift — the pet dog his daughter had named Checkers. Some political pros and the press saw the speech as shameless pandering by Tricky Dick. But a wave of voters flooded the Republican National Committee with calls of support for the man who would be elected vice president. Lesson: Emerging media — in this case nationwide television — can help a candidate reach around the traditional media.
4. Dan Quayle. A second-term U.S. senator, Quayle was not a favorite when George H.W. Bush made him a surprise VP designee in 1988. Bush had run a tight and disciplined race but “really screwed up” the rollout, at the GOP convention in New Orleans, of the man who would become his second, said vice presidential historian Joel K. Goldstein, a professor of law at St. Louis University. Quayle got only hours’ notice he had been chosen and had to fight his way through a crowd, in stifling heat, to get to his first appearance. He appeared overwhelmed at times, but Bush ignored calls to drop him from the ticket. He was the subject of one of the most stinging put-downs in televised debate history after he attempted to compare his own Senate experience to John F. Kennedy’s. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, answered with: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." But Quayle got something Bentsen didn’t: a national election victory. Lesson: Preparation and planning matter.
3. Geraldine Ferraro. Walter Mondale’s 1984 VP pick, the first woman chosen by a major party, initially stirred excitement, particularly among Democrats. But no one had ever thought much in those days about seriously checking the background of vice presidential spouses. The media soon set upon New York Rep. Ferraro and husband John Zaccaro. Though no impropriety was ever shown, questions about releasing taxes and financial records dominated the campaign for weeks. Mondale, himself a former vice president, could never get traction against popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. Lesson: It takes an entire family. Be ready to defend the spouse.
2. Sarah Palin. Of all the dramatic trajectories of vice presidential candidates, none can top former Gov. Palin’s. Plucked by GOP nominee John McCain from the relative obscurity of Alaska in 2008, she wowed the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., with her tart-tongued takedown of candidate Barack Obama (“We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco”). Palin was less adept without a script, and proved so out of her depth during debate preparations that McCain campaign chief Steve Schmidt would later concede he had come to fear what would happen if she was one day forced to serve as commander in chief. By election day in 2008, nearly 6 in 10 voters viewed Palin as unqualified, and many said the choice reflected poorly on McCain. Lesson: Make sure the candidate brings some steak with the sizzle.
1. Thomas Eagleton. Chosen in 1972 by long-shot presidential candidate George McGovern, Eagleton was scrutinized by the Democratic candidate for about as long as it takes Guam to cast its convention votes. Half a dozen better-known Democrats had declined offers to take the No. 2 spot for McGovern, a senator from South Dakota. Scrambling to meet a nominating deadline, no one on the McGovern team had time to check out the Missouri senator before he was offered the No. 2 spot. In the days that followed , it came out that Eagleton had been treated for depression and received electroshock therapy. McGovern stuck with Eagleton for a couple of weeks (infamously backing him “1,000%”) but soon asked his pick to step aside. Eagleton would be replaced by Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver. And McGovern was trounced by Nixon, winning only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts. Lesson: Know your running mate as well as you know firstname.lastname@example.org