Goldstein Grades “Vice”

When VICE, the new Dick Cheney biopic, was released we couldn’t wait to get Joel Goldstein’s opinion of the film. Goldstein is the preeminent expert on the vice presidency and wrote extensively about how Cheney worked to transform the role and influence of the office in his book The White House Vice Presidency.

“Cheney established an unprecedented level of vice-presidential influence during Bush’s first term,” he wrote in his 2017 book. “Cheney functioned primarily as an adviser who could become involved in any issue and attend any meeting.” His take on the film follows…

VICE by Joel Goldstein

The vice presidency is not usually the subject of December box office movie sensations. Long before Vice President John Nance Garner said that the vice presidency wasn’t worth a bucket of warm whatever-liquid- he-really-said, his predecessor, Thomas Marshall, joked about the parents who had two sons, one who went to sea, one became vice president, neither was ever heard from again.

Dick Cheney, the 46th vice president, thought the nation’s second office was worth giving up a bucket of dollars and incentives as Halliburton’s CEO, and has been heard from since, again and again.  And now, a decade after he left office, his political life is the subject of the smash movie, “Vice.”

Cheney might have preferred that the movie be called “Vice President,” rather than “Vice,” but the choice of title was not inadvertent.  Moviemaker Adam McKay is clearly not a Cheney fan.  Cheney was an architect of the Bush administration’s war against Iraq, authorization of interrogation techniques many considered torture, and the warrantless surveillance program, and the title speaks to the conclusion that these and other initiatives were neither virtuous nor wise.

The movie also rests on familiar, yet exaggerated or mistaken, premises, about Cheney’s vice presidency. For instance, the movie disparages the pre-Cheney vice presidency as a nothing job.  After Cheney initially declined to be Governor George W. Bush’s running mate but agreed to head the vice-presidential search (which did actually happen), the Dick and Lynne Cheney characters (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) trash the office during a private exchange.  We don’t know whether the conversation took place but it totally mischaracterized the office as of 2000 when the events allegedly occurred. Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale had invented and implemented the White House vice presidency almost a quarter century earlier, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle had basically followed Mondale’s model in their vice presidencies, and Al Gore was nearing the end of what was at that point the most engaged two-term vice presidency in history.

“Vice” implies that Cheney’s initial refusal to run with Bush was part of a Machiavellian plot  whereby Cheney would escape the scrutiny vice-presidential contenders usually get (what Joe Lieberman once analogized to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia”), control the search, and ultimately land the spot in a stronger position nonetheless.  Perhaps, but I doubt it.   More likely, Cheney was reluctant to leave his high-paying CEO gig at Haliburton for an uncertain run for vice president but, as he became comfortable working with Bush and saw the possibilities of life as the number two to a president who liked to delegate and as he saw the limited alternative options available to Bush, warmed to the idea of accepting the second spot.

The movie advances the familiar premise that in the Bush White House Cheney was the power behind the curtain, the ventriloquist pulling the strings that generated Bush’s words and acts.  Indeed, a familiar joke suggested that Bush was a heartbeat from the presidency.  Yes, Cheney was very powerful, especially in the first term, but Bush, not Cheney, was always president, and Cheney, though influential, was never co-president.  Cheney had used his role directing the 2000-2001 transition to place allies throughout the administration but Cheney generally needed to persuade Bush on important matters.  Although he often succeeded, Cheney lost some battles in the first term and many more in the second term after Bush began to see some of Cheney’s limitations and biases and recognized that some of Cheney’s assurances, including about the war in Iraq, had not been borne out, and that Cheney’s penchant for secrecy often had negative political consequences.

“Vice” does not present this aspect, but Bush believed that Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition would commit him to Bush’s agenda and mitigate the tensions that sometimes develop between the two top officers and their teams.  In fact, Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition made him less democratically accountable.  This characteristic manifested itself most clearly in spring 2004 when Cheney did not let Bush know until the last moment that the justice department was resisting reauthorizing the secret warrantless surveillance program and that some high-level members were prepared to resign over the issue.  Bush recognized that such an event would make the blowback from Richard M. Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like back page news by comparison, would expose the program, and would make him a one term president.  He must also have realized that Cheney was not as wise as he had thought.  In any event, Cheney had less influence during the second term than the first and left office with his approval rating under water.

This warrantless surveillance episode is not presented in “Vice” but it is discussed, as are these other points, in The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.  After you watch “Vice,” I hope you’ll pursue them there.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.

So You Want to Be Vice-President

9780700622023Joel K. Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice-Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden,” offers a list of thoughts for potential VPs to consider this election year via Larry J. Sabato’s Cyrstal Ball:

1. Do you want to be vice president?

The first question for a prospective running mate is whether they want to be vice president. The question may sound the same as the one that John Nance Garner, Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey and others faced in their days, but the considerations are quite different now. The vice presidency has grown remarkably, moving into the executive branch beginning with Nixon’s VP terms and into the White House since Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale reshaped the office 40 years ago. Whereas the vice presidency used to have formal stature but little role, more recently, the term “second office” has come closer to describing its real significance.

Still, as with many career choices, there are considerations going both ways. The advantages include the fact that since Carter and Mondale created the White House vice presidency, the vice president has become a senior, across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter who counsels the president on the central issues facing the country and represents the United States on significant international missions. In other words, a presidential insider. The specific activities and influence of recent vice presidents have varied but the last six vice presidents (beginning with Mondale) have each performed the roles described above with a set of resources to support that activity. Vice presidents now provide highly significant public service.

Whereas a presidential race presents a daunting challenge, a vice presidential run is much more manageable. Presidential candidates have to spend years raising enormous amounts of money and winters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a vice presidential race is essentially a 10 to 14 week sprint. Even so, a vice presidential candidate emerges from the campaign with high name recognition, a national platform, and friends around the country.

The vice presidency is also the best presidential springboard. While even most modern vice presidents don’t become president, being vice president enhances the chance that almost any individual will become a presidential nominee (e.g., Nixon, Humphrey, Mondale, and Al Gore) or president (Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and George H.W. Bush). Even many unsuccessful candidates see their stature rise and later assume significant roles (Bob Dole, Edmund Muskie, Lloyd Bentsen, and Paul Ryan). Many future presidential nominees had previously been considered but passed over for the second spot on the ticket (Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney).

There are disadvantages, too. A vice president loses independence in becoming part of the president’s team. The VP’s role is to help the president succeed, not advance an independent agenda. A vice president will be associated even with administration actions he privately opposed. The public may perceive the vice president as a follower, not leader, because that is the public role she plays.

Moreover, being vice president subjects the vice president and family to intense scrutiny. The Naval Observatory and other amenities are attractive, but the vice presidential spouse and children will lose some privacy. An in-law’s shady business dealing or a nephew’s DWI will become national news.

2. Are you suited to being No. 2?

The vice presidency is a much better job than it was even 40 years ago, but it’s still not for every able public official. Although vice presidents must be leaders who can tell the president discretely, but candidly, when he/she is wrong and who can relate to heads of state and congressional leaders as at least equals, they also have to be able to operate comfortably in a subordinate role. LBJ and Nelson Rockefeller were temperamentally unsuited to be vice president. Both were pretty miserable, and not particularly successful, in that office. Someone who cannot follow will probably not do well as vice president. Most recent vice presidents have adjusted pretty well to the role, uncomfortable or unnatural as it was for some of them. It cannot have been easy for Joe Biden, after six terms in the Senate and chairing two major committees, to defer to anyone, especially someone 19 years younger with 32 years less Senate seniority, yet he did. At the least, a vice president probably needs to respect the president and possess interpersonal skills and discipline to manage relationships with the president, the First Spouse, chief of staff, and the young and often overly-assertive campaign associates of the presidential candidate.

3. Do political considerations counsel against a race?

Sometimes political considerations deter a candidacy. Joining a presidential candidate who seems destined to lose has less appeal than running with a likely winner or one who at least has a chance. Similarly, a prospective candidate who is up for re-election is less likely to accept the second spot. Although some recent vice presidential candidates were able to run simultaneously for their current position (LBJ, Bentsen, Joe Lieberman, Biden, Ryan), some others were precluded from doing so by state law or because the competitive nature of their re-election campaign demanded their undivided attention. Further, prudent candidates consider their readiness for a national campaign, an undertaking that focuses attention on a candidate unlike any prior experience. Someone who is not ready for prime time is likely to damage their party’s campaign and their political future, costs that even a post-campaign gig as a talking head may not redeem. Think Sarah Palin. Whereas presidential candidates can hone their pitches long before Iowa and New Hampshire when few are watching closely, a vice presidential candidate has little time to prepare. He/she must step under the campaign’s bright lights immediately. Negative early impressions are difficult to erase especially for those new to the national stage. Finally, association with the presidential candidate may have advantages but also disadvantages. Given Donald Trump’s polarizing place even within the GOP, prospective Republican candidates, particularly those who are considering future runs for office, will have to consider the pluses and minuses of joining Trump’s ticket.

4. Compatibility

The identity of the presidential candidate matters. The experience, as vice presidential candidate and as vice president, will depend on the compatibility, politically and personally, between the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The two principals don’t have to be ideological carbon copies: Carter-Mondale, Ronald Reagan-Bush, Bush-Dan Quayle, among others, were not. Some variation probably helps, from a political and governing standpoint. But their world views must be generally harmonious so that differences occur at the margins, not routinely over matters of principle.

A prospective running mate should also ask whether he/she could envision a beneficial relationship with the presidential candidate over four or eight stressful years in the hierarchical situation the presidency-vice presidency imposes. At its best, it’s a partnership, but the partners do not share power or benefits equally. The vice president is dependent on the president.

Is the presidential candidate someone to be trusted, someone of decency, someone who will treat others as he/she would want to be treated? Does the presidential candidate appreciate the vice presidency as an asset and envision a substantive role like Mondale, Bush, Quayle, Gore, Cheney, and Biden had? Does the presidential candidate value the prospective running mate? Will the president make others in the campaign and administration accord the No. 2 respect? Being Johnson’s or Nixon’s vice president was no picnic. The last six presidents have treated their vice presidents well, but that had something to do with the personalities of the presidents and the relationships of the principals.

5. Does the running mate add value to the ticket?

A vice president is most likely to be successful if he/she adds something of value, not simply during the campaign but after the votes are counted. Of course, a vice president who contributes to the victory, as Mondale and Gore did, will start out with political capital. So will one, like Dick Cheney, who has a strong relationship with the presidential nominee based on prior work together. But such advantages are unlikely to sustain the relationship if the vice president cannot continually prove his/her value. Successful vice presidencies depend on the incumbent’s ability to add value through some combination of his/her knowledge, judgment, skills, relationships and personal characteristics (e.g. loyalty, hard-work). The vice president has to be able to contribute through advising and troubleshooting on some combination of diplomatic, legislative, inter-governmental, political, and constituency work that is significant for the administration.

6. Vettability

A prospective running mate who decides he/she would like to be vice president must also consider whether he/she can pass a rigorous vetting screen. The process of vice presidential vetting has come a long way since 1976 when the questionnaire given Carter’s shortlisters posed fewer than 20 questions. The process is now much, much more burdensome, much more time-consuming, much more costly, and much more intrusive. Joe Lieberman compared it to a “colonoscopy without anesthesia” after 2000 (although he was prepared to undergo another one eight years later to join McCain’s ticket). Between the vetting the presidential candidate imposes, media investigation, and opposition research, a vice presidential candidate has to assume that virtually everything in his/her life will become public. And the scrutiny will extend to their spouse and children who also may be questioned about sexual affairs, sexual orientation, drug use, and other very personal matters. A prospective vice presidential candidate must be prepared to allow his/her personal and family secrets to become fodder for opposing Super PACs.

7. Duty

The foregoing assumes that a prospective running mate would simply consider self-interest in making the decision. Yet some make themselves available because they feel obligated, to country and/or party, to do so. There is reason to believe, for instance, that a sense of duty led John Danforth in 2000 and Biden in 2008 to allow themselves to be considered.

In the 19th century, Daniel Webster declined the second spot because he did “not want to be buried until I die.” In modern times, many of our ablest political leaders have been willing to accept the second spot on a ticket. And vice presidents since Mondale (other than Bush, who later served as president) performed their most consequential public service in the second office. Still, some eminent figures, such as Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, and Colin Powell, have recently declined to be considered. Again, a Trump nomination could create a unique dynamic: Given the intense opposition from many party regulars to his nomination, it is conceivable that at least some prospective running mates may conclude that duty to the party counsels avoiding the second spot on his ticket (whereas others might reach a different conclusion).

In any event, dozens of public figures are now, or will soon be, deciding whether the White House vice presidency appeals to them. Those decisions will be one important variable in shaping the pools from which the major party running mates are chosen.

-Written by Joel K. Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden