The New York Times Magazine delivers a journalistic cliché in its Joe Biden feature.

Media criticism.
Nov. 25 2009 5:10 PM

The Most Powerful Veeps Ever

The Times Magazine delivers a journalistic cliché in its Joe Biden feature.

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Even the Post knew the Quayle series sucked. The paper's press reporter, Howard Kurtz, wrote that most members of paper's national staff he interviewed found the series "too favorable to Quayle." A disappointed Tom Rosenstiel, then a Los Angeles Times media reporter, told Kurtz, "The stories were told to a large degree from his point of view." Quayle campaign aides liked the series so much they leafleted reporters in New Hampshire who were covering the Bush-Quayle re-election effort, Kurtz reported.

Before Quayle claimed the title, the big veep on the Washington campus was, of course, George H.W. Bush, whom White House press secretary Jim Brady tried to sell to the press as Ronald Reagan's "co-president" in March 1981. And before Bush came Vice President Walter Mondale, the original Most Powerful Vice President. "The possibility that Walter F. Mondale will turn out to be the most powerful Vice President in the nation's history is now emerging," trilled U.S. News & World Report in its Jan. 31, 1977, issue, just a few days after the Carter-Mondale inauguration. Mondale was the first veep with working quarters inside the White House, Dom Bonafede reported in a March 11, 1978, National Journal piece titled "Vice President Mondale—Carter's Partner With Portfolio." Mondale loved to brag about his influence and closeness to the president, and the press happily repeated the boast.

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Just because Traub (whose work I admire) and his editors make it easy to ridicule the Biden feature doesn't mean you shouldn't read it, especially if you're interested in the man who could be president or you're fascinated by power's tendrils rather than its roots. But is it too much to ask  that we retire from journalism the conceit that the vice president should be profiled only if we're prepared to call him the most powerful (or even the second-most-powerful) person to warm the seat?

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Who was the most powerful editor of Slate? Some say it was founding editor Michael Kinsley, and others say Jacob Weisberg, who now runs the Slate Group. I put my money on the current editor, David Plotz, who can dunk a basketball, bench press 200 pounds, was once company table tennis champion, and who has an office right next to mine. Send your views on power, prestige, and proximity to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. If you're hungry for bite-size bits, subscribe to my Twitter feed. (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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Biden in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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