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The Sweep: What It’s Like to Cover the Veepstakes
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The Sweep: What It’s Like to Cover the Veepstakes

Sarah talks to Steve about how he broke the news that Paul Ryan was Romney’s choice.

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Joe Biden is expected to announce his running mate next week. On The Dispatch Podcast this week, we batted around Susan Rice as a rising dark horse—although everyone agreed Sen. Tammy Duckworth was still the more likely option. But here’s some fun trivia (h/t Jonah): Only one VP has ever become POTUS without ever winning an election in their own right. Any guesses out there on whose footsteps Susan Rice could theoretically follow if she gets the nod? Leave your answer in the comments.

Okay. Back to business. On Monday, I wrote a little bit of what the veepstakes looks like from the campaign’s perspective, but I also wanted to talk to Steve about what he has seen covering these moments for the last 20 years and some of his behind-the-scenes takes. Lucky for us, I caught Steve in between glasses of Spanish wine when the brisket (7 weeks old now!) was napping to talk veepstakes of yore.

So without further ado, here’s a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation:

Sarah: You wrote the book on this back in the Cheney time frame; what do you think has changed most in covering this from Cheney to now in terms of picking vice presidents?

Steve: I think it’s a completely different world right now, because so many of the things that one would have done as a reporter to try to ferret out who was going to be picked you can’t do anymore. Because everyone’s sequestered or quarantined, there aren’t likely to be as many flights to track, there aren’t going to be the kind of staff-related tells that you might be able to get if you were reporting on this very closely as someone covering the campaigns. So I think the likelihood of leaks and learning what’s happening inside the campaign and learning who the pick is for Joe Biden before they’re ready to announce it is slim.

Sarah: What did it look like behind the scenes for Cheney?

Steve: That was an interesting process because it actually started way before the formal vetting process took place. Remember, Cheney was tapped by George W. Bush to lead the selection process and then, as the old joke goes, he chose himself. 

Sarah: In my head, I’ve broken up what presidential candidates look for in vice presidents into three categories. Someone to take over being president, someone who can be a partner as vice president, and someone who helps the ticket. What was Bush looking for?

Steve: Yes, I think Bush was focused almost exclusively on the first two. He was interested in someone who could be vice president and not chiefly interested in a running mate. In fact, there were several obstacles to picking Cheney that might have given a different kind of presidential candidate pause. At the time, both of them were living in Texas, and that’s not allowed,* so before he was announced, Cheney had to re-register in Wyoming. There were some enterprising reporters from NBC, Lisa Meyers and Pete Williams—Pete Williams had worked for Cheney at the Pentagon—who were wisely checking Wyoming voter registrations to see if Cheney had changed his registration. And they were right.

*For the trivia nerds, the 12th Amendment begins: “The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves …”

Sarah: How did Cheney go from chairing the committee to getting selected? 

Steve: The process on Cheney started much earlier. Bush was re-elected in 1998 and almost immediately was mentioned as a top tier candidate for president, and was thinking shortly after he was elected that he was going to run for president. So he sent Joe Allbaugh, one of his top aides at the time, to visit Cheney, who was just up the road from Austin in Dallas, running Halliburton. Allbaugh sought out Cheney for a conversation about what a presidential campaign would look like and how [Cheney] would go about putting it together. On returning from that first meeting, Joe said: “If you run for president, Dick Cheney should be your running mate.” And that’s early 1999. 

When I interviewed Bush about the election process later when he was president, he told me he was a big body language guy, and he cared about what he was observing as these campaign policy meetings were taking place. And in those meetings you had a lot of people who had a ton of experience in foreign policy and national security area consulting with Bush. And every time Cheney spoke, the room grew quiet and everyone listened very carefully— like that old E.F. Hutton ad. When Dick Cheney talks, people listen. Bush told me that his own instincts all along were that Cheney would be the best choice, which is why he was so persistent in asking Cheney to be involved in the campaign at a high level. 

Sarah: How did the ask get made?

Steve: Bush asked Cheney to be his national campaign chairman and Cheney turned him down; he asked him to sit in on additional policy meetings and Cheney agreed to do that. And eventually Bush asked Cheney to run the vice presidential vetting process and Cheney agreed to do that because, as he told me, it was something he could just do and then get out of it, it wasn’t a continued commitment. So he agreed to do it. Joe Allbaugh had visited him again at the beginning of that process and urged him to allow himself to be vetted. Cheney said no. It wasn’t a coquettish, batting his eyelashes sort of no; it was a firm no, I don’t want to do the job, don’t consider me.

And then finally, Cheney put together a list, handed it to then presidential candidate Bush, walked through the pros and cons of the various people on the list, and Bush looked at him and said something to the effect of, “You’re the solution to my problems. You should be my running mate.” He made it clear that this was a very serious offer. The way Cheney tells this story was that at that point, you have to stop and think, this is the potential president of the United States asking me to be his partner and so he revisited what he had been thinking before that point and agreed to do it.

Sarah: And then we’ve got Palin—certainly viewed as the most consequential veep pick of recent history. How did she get on your radar as you were covering the campaign?

Steve: It was by accident—as so much of that selection seemed to be. McCain was deep in the process of his vice presidential selection when I learned that he was considering a change of policy on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It hadn’t been announced publicly but it was something that several of his top advisers were urging. I was traveling with the McCain campaign, I was in Michigan, and I had gotten word that McCain was ready to make the change, he was ready to basically flip-flop from being opposed to drilling in ANWR to being in favor of drilling in ANWR. In the course of my interview—and this was in August of 2008, I asked him if he’d talked to Sarah Palin about ANWR. She had been rumored to be on his VP list, but had not been vetted in any serious way. And he finished by saying “I will.” So I called Palin after I was finished interviewing McCain—I believe I was on his campaign bus—and said “Hey, John McCain is going to call you, when he calls you about ANWR, what are you going to tell him?” And she was excited to be consulted, as you might imagine. 

Sarah: Where did Lieberman fit in?

Steve: A couple weeks later, I had another interview with John McCain, this one aboard his campaign plane in late August. I was sitting in the back of the plane as reporters do, and I was called up to the first-class cabin where the candidate and his advisers sit, and I walked up and took a seat next to Joe Lieberman. McCain was across the aisle from me, and we started talking. McCain had made news earlier because when he was asked about Mike Bloomberg as a potential VP candidate, he said it would be hard to do given the pro-life views in the Republican Party. 

But I’d learned that he was strongly considering at least one pro-choice candidate. So I asked him again and he hedged his previous answer a bit. He said he thought being pro-life was hugely important to being a Republican, but everybody needs to work together. And then he dropped Tom Ridge’s name, saying Ridge is this great leader who happens to be pro-choice and I don’t want to rule him out just because he’s pro-choice. Well, as you can imagine, that made quite a splash when the story was published. The untold story, though, was even more interesting. As I said, Joe Lieberman was sitting directly next to me and McCain was looking at Lieberman as a running mate far more seriously than he was looking at Ridge. And I later learned that when McCain said that, while he specifically name-checked Tom Ridge, the person he was really floating was Joe Lieberman, basically trying to test the reaction that comment would get with Joe Lieberman. And it did get a lot of attention.

Lieberman, for what it’s worth, in a conversation that I had with him right when we landed—it was at the urinal in the men’s room at the private airport hangar. It wasn’t on the record, so I still can’t reveal the details of exactly what he told me, but I can say that he was well aware of what had just happened when McCain expressed his openness to a pro-choice running mate. He seemed to know that the trial balloon was more about him than Ridge and he made it clear to me that he was willing and eager to be McCain’s running mate if McCain wanted to choose him.

Sarah: And how did Lieberman’s chances fade?

Steve: As the process moved forward, the McCain campaign within the next week or two had top campaign officials begin quietly reaching out to social conservative leaders to take their temperature on whether they would be willing to back McCain enthusiastically and really get behind him if he picked a pro-choice running mate. So they called Mike Huckabee, they called Jon Huntsman, Gary Bauer, and others, and the range of answers they got was different. Some were enthusiastic, others said they wouldn’t outright oppose it, which was sort of fighting to a draw for the McCain campaign. 

But over the next couple of weeks, with the selection process narrowing and eventually ruling out Joe Lieberman or a pro-choice candidate, McCain increasingly focused on Sarah Palin. He was also considering, at the end, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and a couple of others not quite as seriously. But McCain had said throughout this entire process that he was going to make a “transformative” pick, that it was going to be something big and something bold and something unexpected. And I think, sort of listening to himself say that, he started to focus more on Palin. 

Well, he called her as the process continued getting serious, making good on the promise—according to Palin’s press secretary at the time, a guy named Bill McAllister—McCain called her to follow up on the conversation he had with me, in which he said that he was going to ask her about ANWR. And they talked briefly and agreed to continue to talk. And continue to talk they did, and eventually, he settled on Sarah Palin as his pick.

Sarah: Looking back now, do you think Palin made a positive or negative difference on the actual outcome that year? And should he have chosen Lieberman?

Steve: Good question, we were already pretty well into this era of polarization. Remember, McCain had basically an open war with talk radio and would-be Tea Party set of the Republican Party. I remember doing almost an entire interview on his campaign bus about Rush Limbaugh and why McCain always felt the need to pick fights with him. It was not like McCain would just sit back and take it, he would give it right back even when these were people who could have potentially energized his base. He was always sort of unapologetic about it. 

So I think there’s a good argument to be made that had he chosen Lieberman, there could have been a huge chunk of the center right that just said to hell with it, I wasn’t a McCain fan, Joe Lieberman’s a Democrat, he might be a nice guy, I might agree with him on some national security stuff, but even that was the question in the aftermath of the continued troubles in Iraq. I do definitely think that Palin set the stage for the kind of performative and less substantive politics that we’re in the middle of today. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

Sarah: Fast forward to Romney. Everyone was chasing the story of who Romney would name as his running mate, and literally chasing him as it turned out.

Steve: It’s true. I had written a big profile of Paul Ryan for The Weekly Standard in May of 2012 and the whole conceit of the profile was whether Ryan was a potential VP candidate. It was met with, shall we say, a fair amount of skepticism, because Paul Ryan, as you recall, had just come off of getting the entire Republican Party to get behind entitlement reform, including reform of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which had long been thought of as the third rail of American politics, and the thought was that Paul Ryan was far too controversial to pick as a potential running mate. I’d known Ryan for a while, we’re both the same age and we both came from Wisconsin. So I’d covered him in Congress, and for the piece that spring, I think I spent about a week or two following him in Wisconsin, watching him give these power point presentations to people in his district and evaluating and profiling him in the context of whether he’d be a possible VP pick. 

Sarah: So using those three buckets again—can become president, would be a good partner as vice president, or this helps the campaign—what did your reporting at the time say the Romney team was looking for?

Steve: I think they liked him for all three. Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy was to compete in the upper Midwest. And I think Romney being from Michigan and Paul Ryan being from next door Wisconsin, having had some electoral success in Wisconsin with Gov. Scott Walker in the Wisconsin legislature that that was a “gettable” state, although no Republican had won it since Ronald Reagan, I think. So I think they thought it was “gettable” and having Ryan on the ticket would help them that way, but I also think Romney liked Ryan because he was a smart, thoughtful, committed conservative, and that factored into the way they thought about him as a potential running mate as well. 

I will say, it was a surprising pick in one respect. Romney had long been considered an ultra-cautious candidate, not someone who would take a lot of chances, very calculating, lots of planning, and taking Ryan was a risk; and Romney took the risk. Even though I’d done a ton of reporting and talked to a bunch of people who were working with Romney and had spent a lot of time on the campaign trail, I didn’t think the caricature of Romney was that far off that he was sort of mechanical and listened to the pollsters and that he had the authenticity problem. I think this was a sign that he really was a man of principle—certainly more than I’d thought.

Sarah: And then there was the actual announcement.

Steve: I started getting word that Ryan was a pretty serious contender, probably a finalist, maybe a couple weeks or so out of the announcement, and doing everything I could to break that story. There were things that suggested he was going to be the pick and then other things that suggested he wouldn’t be. One of the things that suggested he wouldn’t was that one of his most trusted aides, Conor Sweeney, who was with Ryan all the time and did everything Ryan did, was in Italy, as I recall, and the conclusion I’d reached talking to my colleagues at The Weekly Standard and with folks on the campaign, was Ryan would never be picked and announced if his top guy wasn’t there. And it turns out that Conor had secretly flown back for the announcement, unbeknownst to me.

Sarah: How did you finally pin it down?

Steve: I was driving with my family back to the Midwest to an August trip to Door County, Wisconsin, and was basically just making phone calls over the sound of crying kids and videos in the minivan. I had a couple of conversations during that time frame with very senior folks in Romneyworld and the GOP where these people were very careful not to be a source confirming that Romney was picking Ryan but everything those conversations told me that Paul was going to be the pick. So we pulled over in Racine, Wisconsin, and I was just going to rent a car and drive to Janesville and go to Ryan’s house with a six pack of beer. I believe he and I had had vague conversations about me visiting him in Wisconsin, maybe getting a beer. So I thought, well no time like the present, I’ll just drive over there and show up at his house. Then I made a couple more phone calls and learned he was not physically in his house in Janesville, this was late in the afternoon. Ryan had actually snuck out his back door to avoid being seen by reporters staking out his house, then run through some yards in his neighborhood to be whisked away for the announcement. And by then, that evening, phone call after phone call, trading bits of information with sources and learning more, I heard that Governor Scott Walker had been asked that day to record an audio phone message for Republicans, to be released the next day, designed to tout the pick and get people excited about Paul Ryan. 

So at that point, as you can imagine, we were ready to write that Romney had picked Ryan but in the back of our heads, there was always that question of whether this had been a head fake. There had been a few of those in the not too distant past so we made one more phone call to a source and said, just save us the embarrassment: We’re about to report that Romney is going to pick Paul Ryan, if we’re wrong, please just wave us off. And that source, who definitely knew who the pick was, again careful not to confirm the story, did not wave us off. 

We broke the news, but we still wrote the story in such a way that gave us a little out because we said, we can confirm that Mitt Romney is preparing to announce that Paul will be his running mate. And we said, this could be a head fake, and we included the detail about Scott Walker being asked to record the audio, and said it may be the case that advocates for several candidates had been asked to record this kind of audio and that they won’t end up using this recording touting Ryan. But we pretty much reported it that night which set things flying.

Photograph of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.