For three years, a website called CareerCast.com has made headlines with a study consistently ranking “newspaper reporter” as the worst job in America. That’s bunk.
We newspaper reporters are here to tell you that the actual worst job in America is running for vice president.
Everyone knows that being vice president is a bummer — a job famously described by the 32nd person to hold it, John “Cactus Jack” Nance Garner, as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” It’s an office that comes with little official authority; like the Sea Witch Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” it can strip you of your own voice. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” mused its first occupant, John Adams.
But there’s one thing worse, and it is running for the godforsaken job.
This will be sharply epitomized Tuesday night at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., this year’s host of the forlorn tradition known as the vice-presidential debate. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have probably had to study harder than their running mates (certainly the case for Pence) in order to fully articulate opinions that might not initially have been their own. Pence looks like he’d blush at the words “sex tape” and yet could be asked to defend Donald Trump’s tweets alleging a former Miss Universe had been in one. Kaine could keep every email he’s ever gotten in a scrapbook at the public library and still have to talk about Hillary Clinton’s secretive correspondences. Meanwhile, millions of people will be watching at home, mostly just to see whether anyone says anything stupid.
For that is the essence of this terrible job. No one’s casting a vote based on the No. 2 on the ticket — but everyone’s eagerly waiting to see how they might screw it up.
Screwing it up is basically all you have time for in the intense three-month stretch that anyone gets to occupy the role of running for vice president. The presidential candidates themselves have had a year or more of wearying scrutiny — but they’ve also had ample time to rebound from blows and hone their game.
And the gig is an unavoidably miserable fit for the two kinds of pols typically deemed suitable for it — the seasoned veterans tapped to lend stability and gravitas to the ticket (but who never imagined themselves in the back seat) or the fresh-faced newcomers expected to bring excitement (but maybe not quite ready for prime time). It’s a recipe to either feel disappointed or to disappoint.
It starts with the vetting process — what Joe Lieberman was warned while in talks to be Al Gore’s 2000 running mate would be “like a medical procedure without anesthesia.” (And let’s have a moment of silence for all those candidates who submitted to a vigorous vetting — essentially helping a supposed ally make a giant opposition research file against themselves — and then got passed over for this terrible job, leading everyone to wonder what horrors lurked in their file.)
Of course, a rough vetting is better than none. Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri may have felt like a lucky man when Democratic nominee George McGovern — having been turned down by his first two choices — tapped him to run on his ticket in 1972. That is, until his three earlier hospitalizations for depression and electroshock therapy blew up into a major news story. When Eagleton died in 2007, his New York Times obituary boiled his life down into this headline: “Thomas F. Eagleton, 77, a Running Mate for 18 Days, Dies.”
Eagleton was replaced on the McGovern ticket by Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law and of impressive credentials — Peace Corps founder, ambassador to France — who had never himself run for office. This manifested memorably on the campaign trail when he visited a working-class bar in Youngstown, Ohio. As the steelworkers ordered their Budweisers and Schlitzes, Shriver was heard to call out, “Make mine a Courvoisier!”
The job turns every minor family drama into a national headline (“Sarah Palin’s daughter, 17, is pregnant”) and casts a spotlight into every nook and cranny of a candidate’s life. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman tapped by a major party to run for VP, found this out the hard way. Reporters wanted information about her husband’s financial dealings, and her husband didn’t want to release his tax returns. Ferraro tried to brush off the controversy with a quip: “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like.”
It only made things worse. In her memoir she wrote of that moment: “My candidacy had been struck by an almost fatal blow before the campaign had hardly begun.”
And while the opposition will go after a presidential candidate on matters of policy and qualifications, it’s not uncommon to take shots at the No. 2 based on sheer persona. In 1968, the campaign of Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey ran ads against Richard Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, that consisted solely of the words “Agnew for Vice-President” on the screen, over the sound of a man guffawing himself into a hacking cough.
And then comes the nationally televised gaffe obstacle course known as the vice-presidential debate. Typically, these events get half the viewership of their presidential counterparts but seem to carry twice the risk for ruining a reputation. Take the epic Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle exchange from 1988.
Here’s the back story: Quayle, a still boyish-looking 41-year-old senator, had been going around on the campaign trail comparing his résumé to that of President Kennedy’s, noting that they had both served in Congress for the same amount of time. Quayle’s handlers warned him not to make that comparison on the debate stage — but he did it anyway.
“Senator,” declared Bentsen, then a 67-year-old senator from Texas, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
“Bentsen was ready, and he clobbered him,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and a leading authority on the vice presidency. Other than that one moment, he said Quayle “was pretty effective in attacking [Democratic nominee Michael] Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal. All people remember is Bentsen flooring him.”
Not that charming self-deprecation is a better tactic. In 1992, retired Adm. James Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient, agreed to join Ross Perot’s independent ticket. The story goes that Stockdale, smart man that he was, intended only to be a placeholder and wanted to be replaced on the ticket eventually.
Alas, he did not get out before the vice-presidential debate, an event he later said he didn’t know he’d be part of until a week ahead of time. His opening statement began with: “Who am I? And, why am I here?” It got laughs, but he was clearly nervous, and the clip was used to define him as befuddled. Of course, the moment made it into his obituary.
And yet, despite a proven track record for humiliation, it remains hard to drum up enthusiasm for the vice-presidential debate. This year, even the professional hype men have a hard time selling it. Former Ted Cruz staffer Rick Tyler briefly gave it a game try on MSNBC the other day:
“This one will be particularly interesting,” Tyler said, “because you’re probably going to get a lot more policy in this debate.”
And yet, added MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin, “it probably won’t have the same kind of fireworks that the first presidential debate had.”
“Oh absolutely not,” conceded Tyler. “It may be much more boring.”
Unless, of course, someone screws up.