The long, drawn-out faux drama of picking a presidential running mate.

Media criticism.
Aug. 19 2008 5:29 PM

Veep Creep

The long, drawn-out faux drama of picking a running mate.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Back when the American automobile industry rode high, its marketers worked the press for months on end to create a false sense of suspense about what the new Belchfires would look like. While Detroit may have lost its knack for product introduction, the presumptive presidential nominees have gotten sharper at manufacturing anticipation about who they'll pick for the bottom of their tickets.

Today's New York Times contains a classic of the genre: "Obama Nears No. 2 Pick, Aides Say." Powered by more heavy breathing than an obscene phone call, the article's lede sources to Barack Obama's aides that he "has all but settled on his choice for a running mate and set an elaborate rollout plan for his decision, beginning with an early morning alert to supporters, perhaps as soon as Wednesday morning." Five paragraphs later, the article attributes to Obama advisers that their man "all but reached his decision while on vacation in Hawaii."

The key phrase, used twice in the Times story, is "all but," and it provides Obama's advisers the vast wiggle room in which they can simultaneously assert that he has made up his mind and that he hasn't made up his mind. In other words, the Times has no news to report—only a higher octane of speculation it expects its readers to swallow until Obama does make his announcement.

If Obama is guilty of gaming the press to sustain interest in his campaign, his partner in crime is John McCain, who as early as May 21 was auditioning potential vice presidents and continues the tease this week. Politico's Mike Allen reported yesterday that McCain will name his running mate on Aug. 29 at a rally in Ohio. But he hasn't made up his mind, either. Allen writes, "Friends say [McCain] has yet to make a final decision, and is not expected to do so until after Sen. Barack Obama announces his choice."

Another way candidates exploit the process is by floating the names of individuals they would never actually choose. Take, for example, the trial balloon the Obama camp sent up in July for Ann Veneman, a Republican and secretary of agriculture in George W. Bush's first administration. Obama is as likely to pick Funshine Bear from the Care Bear family as his running mate, but the Veneman balloon gives him a way to look more open-minded than your usual Democrat.

Conducting an endless veepstakes isn't all about the campaigns controlling mind share. By hinting to reporters the names on their short lists, the presumptive presidential candidates can get the press to save them time and energy by vetting their potential veeps for them. After all, it was reporters Clark Hoyt and Robert Boyd—not campaign aides—who discovered that vice-presidential nominee Tom Eagleton neglected to tell George McGovern that he had been treated with electroshock therapy, forcing McGovern to dump Eagleton after 18 days and find another running mate.

Nor are the candidates always the worst perpetrators. You're nobody in political Washington unless the press has assessed your veep quotient, so some of the malarkey about who is on the short list comes directly from the politically vain. The press corps shares blame, too, knowing that all of the names are pencil strokes until the presumptive nominee actually throws the switch. But they write their veep speculation stories because no reporter ever got pulled from the campaign beat for filing a story filled with the name of preposterous "candidates."

While the Times places its veep speculation on the inside today, the Washington Post files its on Page One above the fold, treating the story as part of a national parlor game ("Who's No. 2? Obama Keeps Everybody Guessing"). The Post's news is that there is no real news. Nobody "outside Sen. Barack Obama's inner, inner circle knows—that sometime before next week the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will announce his running mate," the paper reports. "Beyond that, the political world is in a zone of fevered speculation," the Post continues, before dutifully handicapping the possible veeps.

Both the Times and the Post acknowledge that the timing of Obama's decision is all about "rollout"—that is, extracting the "maximum publicity going into the convention" (Times) and to provide "a big boost before the convention opens Monday in Denver" (Post). But generating a spectacle upon which a ticket can ride to November victory is almost always illusory. The selection and the baptism of a veep candidate doesn't contain enough juice to power a night light, let alone a political campaign.

Candidates and the reporters who cover them share a problem from the time the campaigns begin until the voters cast their final ballots: how to keep the story alive. Why do reporters abet the orchestration of this media event every four years, fighting like wolverines to claim a "scoop" that's so meaningless that nobody can remember a month (a week?) after the fact who scored it?  Is it evidence of their cynicism or of their credulity?

******

Nelson Rockefeller was my favorite veep. Never nominated, never elected, never above flipping off voters he didn't like. Who is yours? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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