“I have absolutely no desire to go back to government,” Richard B. Cheney, then an executive at an oil-field company, said in 2000.
Both men later accepted the vice-presidential nod they had said they didn’t want. In Cheney’s case, he led the search that eventually led to . . . him.
This is expected. The first unwritten notion about the “veepstakes” is that the American vice presidency is like a bronze medal or a day-old doughnut: Sure, you might enjoy having it. But it is considered unseemly to want it.
The dance is expected to begin in earnest now that Mitt Romney is the de facto Republican nominee. On Monday, the candidate said he has named Beth Myers, a longtime senior adviser, to lead his running-mate search committee, even though he acknowledged that it is “way too early to begin narrowing down who the potential vice-presidential nominees might be.”
The selection of a running mate is a vitally important political calculation for any presidential nominee: It can help swing a key state or voting demographic or reassure voters that a capable second is ready to take over in an emergency.
And in most cases, it is the first big executive decision made under the kind of public scrutiny that presidents face every day. For that reason, it is crucial not to crowd the decider — or to seem like you’re stealing his airtime.
“You’re number two, not number one,” said former vice president Dan Quayle — a politician who, in his day, was considered to have carried out the rituals of the office with rare skill. “And if you’re out there actively campaigning, there’s a subliminal message: that maybe you won’t be that comfortable in the number-two position.”
These odd rules of the vice-presidential courtship have not changed, even as the job itself has. In the past two White Houses, Cheney and Biden have played significant roles in policymaking and politicking — a major break from the old days, when their office was likened to a spare tire.
Or “a warm bucket of spit,” a description attributed to Depression-era vice president John Nance Garner.
“It makes you one of the most significant people in the country,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University who studies the vice presidency. “There’s no embarrassment in wanting to be secretary of state, or secretary of the Treasury, or secretary of defense. There shouldn’t be in wanting to be vice president, either.”
This year, most of the top contenders have been acting out the right steps. Most of them.
Every four years, a few have to learn — the hard way — that the last thing a vice-presidential hopeful should show is hope.