Jim Johnson in the VP Hunt Once Again

by James M. Wall

The choice of a Vice President is the first, and most important, decision that Barack Obama will make once Hillary Clinton concedes. He has already begun to consider his options, quietly, of course, to avoid offending Clinton and her supporters. In a very wise move, Obama has enlisted James A. Johnson to either chair or closely consult in the search. 

Johnson is a highly successful Washington operative with credentials in the VP search business.  He made his presence felt in Washington when he served as both Chairman and CEO from 1991 until 1998 for Fannie Mae  (Federal National Mortgage Association). Johnson was praised by Matthew Cooper in a 1997 Slate essay in which he described him as a Medici (after the Italian family of bankers and merchants which effectively ruled Florence for much of the 15th century). 

Johnson was a top aide to Walter Mondale, serving as a top staff aide when Mondale was a senator and vice president.  Johnson chaired the Mondale vice presidential search that chose Geraldine Ferrarro in 1984, a task he also performed for John Kerry In 2004. Johnson came to Chicago to provide oversight to the Carter-Mondale reelection campaign after the 1980 primary. I was the volunteer state chair of that campaign and saw Johnson at work up close. 

Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne had led Ted Kennedy’s Illinois effort to defeat Carter, first, unsuccessfully in the primary race for delegates and then in Harold Ickes’ unsuccessful attempt to “change the convention rules” to allow Carter delegates to vote for Kennedy. We won the floor fight, but it left state campaigns, like ours, scrambling to unify our delegations for the campaign ahead.

Before we went to New York to face the Ickes “rules changing” fight, the Carter delegates had to choose a delegate chair for the convention. Mayor Richard J. Daley was our chair in 1976, but he had died a few weeks after Carter’s election. Mayor Byrne was not an option; she was leading the Kennedy effort. Two male Carter delegates, state elected officials, one white, one African American, each felt they deserved the position. Women in the delegation wanted a chairwoman. 

As the Carter campaign chair, I had to negotiate with these factions at the tense party convention that elected the chair. Jim Johnson sat quietly in the back of the room, telling me what he (the campaign) wanted to happen.  He came up with a Solomonic solution: The two male elected state officials would be co-chairs, and two women, a Chicago state senator and a downstate County chair, would also be co-chairs.

I took a lot of heat and ridicule from the Chicago media for the four-headed “monster” we took with us to the New York convention. We literally had to draw straws to see who would chair the convention each night. All four wanted to be in charge the third night, when vote totals were cast on national television. (“The great state of Illinois, the land of Lincoln, proudly casts its votes for the man who. . .”)  Jim Johnson was satisfied; he was behind the scenes, where the heat does not shine.

Johnson is again behind the scenes, searching for a vice president. One of the most helpful suggestions I have heard comes from an unsuspecting source, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks who suggests now is not the time for Obama to worry about geographical balance, nor should he placate a single voting bloc from his base (no four-way monster for Johnson this time).

Brooks points to the Bush-Cheney team as an example of a selection which brought to the White House an experienced and reliable partner able to handle tough assignments. (You don’t have to approve of the Cheney choice, nor the way he handled his job, to see that, in the right hands, the advice is sound.)

Jimmy Carter was a one-term governor from Georgia when he picked Mondale as his vice president. Carter knew he needed an experienced Washington veteran at his side. He broke precedence and brought Mondale into the White House with an office a few doors from the Oval Office. Private Carter-Mondale weekly luncheons became strategy sessions that shaped administration policies.

In his New York Times column, Brooks offers this advice:

A vice president can . . . have a gigantic impact on an administration once in office (see: Cheney, Richard). Therefore, a sensible presidential candidate shouldn’t be selecting a mate on the basis of who can help him get elected. He should be thinking about who can help him govern successfully so he can get re-elected. That means asking: What circumstances will I face when I take office? What tasks will I need my chief subordinate to perform to help me face those circumstances? 

Brooks offers (log in needed to access) two experienced former senators as examples: Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, and Sam Nunn, of Georgia, both former senators with extensive experience in the ways of Washington, and in Nunn’s case, a special expertise in military affairs. Daschle has been an informal advisor to the Obama campaign and may participate in the VP search.

The vetting process must dig deeply into the background of each prospective candidate. George McGovern’s experience with Tom Eagleton demonstrated that any harmful information that would feed the 24 hour a day news cycle “beast” (now including cable television, talk radio and bloggers) must be known in advance. The often irrational segments of that “beast” are interested in neither nuance nor fairness, as Obama learned from his Jeremiah Wright experience.

 So, Jim Johnson, make sure your VP suggestions guarantee the nation a group of potential candidates with reliable loyalty, the ability to handle tough major assignments, proven government experience which compliments that of the president, a demonstrated maturity under fire, a comfort level with the president, and like the top of the ticket, a sense of humor.  Also, make sure Michelle Obama likes the final choice; Barack Obama listens to her. 



About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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