Shafer’s first law of journalism states that no article can be created or destroyed; it can only change form.
This timeless truth gets a workout in the pages of our most prestigious newspapers and magazines with the election of every new vice president. Whether composed by a reporter assigned to the vice president beat who hopes that a little exaggeration will raise the profile of his work or by a bureau chief who figures that extravagant praise in print will provide the source grease for future scoops, the “he’s the most powerful vice president ever” story has become a Washington staple.
The Nov. 29 New York Times Magazine bestows the “most powerful vice president in history” accolade on Joe Biden with the qualifier that he’s the most powerful vice president in history after that Cheney guy. Written by James Traub, who scampers around the globe and down the White House’s halls with the logorrheic 47th vice president, the piece conforms to all the clichés of most-powerful-veep genre. It catalogs the size of his staff, the number of meetings he has with the president, the number of important presidential briefings he attends, the number of private lunches he has with the president, the breadth of his policy portfolio, the air miles he’s flown on diplomatic missions as “Obama’s fire chief and ambassador without portfolio,” and the frequency of his impromptu sessions with the president (“Very seldom a week goes by that he doesn’t call me down to his office, or wander in here and close the door and say, ‘Wait a minute, what about this?’ ” Biden tells Traub).
Just because Traub finds Biden so damn all-powerful doesn’t mean that he can’t also recognize that the man is a doofus, too. Traub, who has contributed to Slate, calls the vice president “a windbag,” ridicules him for telling the same long anecdote twice in 36 hours to the traveling press and his aides without being aware of the repetition, and dings him for his “unscheduled rhetorical flights,” some of which have been preserved in Slate’s “Bidenisms” column.
But doofusness doesn’t automatically negate vice-presidential power. Indeed, the case can be made that doofusness assists in the achievement of vice-presidential power. Take Al Gore. Is there a bigger doofus? The man could have moved directly into the White House if only he’d promised the nation during the 2000 campaign another eight years just like the previous eight. But no, he had to speak mysteriously about “powerful forces and powerful interest” standing in your way and completely confuse the electorate.
Yet on March 15, 1993, less than two months after Gore and Bill Clinton took their oaths and well before he’d had a chance to do much of anything except move his knickknacks and family into the vice president’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson seized valuable Page One real estate to anoint Gore the potentially greatest veep. The headline read:
Gore May Emerge as Most Influential Vice President
White House: He Plays Self-Effacing Role, but Clinton Has Leaned Heavily on Him for Advice on Crucial Issues
Nelson, who died in October, found evidence of Gore’s White House pull everywhere he looked. Gore met “frequently and regularly with the president,” was “one of only a handful of advisers with direct access to the Oval Office,” was considered by Clinton to be “his alter ego within the White House.” He quotes President Clinton telling his Cabinet, “Whenever you get a call from the vice president, I want you to treat it as a call from me” and collects this bit of harmony from Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos: “And before any big decision is made, the president always wants to know, ‘What does Al think?’ “
Even when a modern vice president is so irrelevant he can’t get his calls returned by the president’s valet, press can be relied upon to produce a hagiographic masterpiece about him, as Bob Woodward and David S. Broder did in January 1992 with a seven-part, 40,000-word, six-months-in-the-making Washington Post series about Vice President Dan Quayle. The series served as the foundation for their 1992 book, The Man Who Would Be President: Dan Quayle. Amazon lists 113 copies priced as low as 1 cent apiece, if you’re interested. They make excellent fire-starter.
Even the Post knew the Quayle series sucked. The paper’s press reporter, Howard Kurtz, wrote that most members of paper’s national staff he interviewed found the series “too favorable to Quayle.” A disappointed Tom Rosenstiel, then a Los Angeles Times media reporter, told Kurtz, “The stories were told to a large degree from his point of view.” Quayle campaign aides liked the series so much they leafleted reporters in New Hampshire who were covering the Bush-Quayle re-election effort, Kurtz reported.
Before Quayle claimed the title, the big veep on the Washington campus was, of course, George H.W. Bush, whom White House press secretary Jim Brady tried to sell to the press as Ronald Reagan’s “co-president” in March 1981. And before Bush came Vice President Walter Mondale, the original Most Powerful Vice President. “The possibility that Walter F. Mondale will turn out to be the most powerful Vice President in the nation’s history is now emerging,” trilled U.S. News & World Report in its Jan. 31, 1977, issue, just a few days after the Carter-Mondale inauguration. Mondale was the first veep with working quarters inside the White House, Dom Bonafede reported in a March 11, 1978, National Journal piece titled “Vice President Mondale—Carter’s Partner With Portfolio.” Mondale loved to brag about his influence and closeness to the president, and the press happily repeated the boast.
Just because Traub (whose work I admire) and his editors make it easy to ridicule the Biden feature doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, especially if you’re interested in the man who could be president or you’re fascinated by power’s tendrils rather than its roots. But is it too much to ask that we retire from journalism the conceit that the vice president should be profiled only if we’re prepared to call him the most powerful (or even the second-most-powerful) person to warm the seat?
Who was the most powerful editor of Slate? Some say it was founding editor Michael Kinsley, and others say Jacob Weisberg, who now runs the Slate Group. I put my money on the current editor, David Plotz, who can dunk a basketball, bench press 200 pounds, was once company table tennis champion, and who has an office right next to mine. Send your views on power, prestige, and proximity to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re hungry for bite-size bits, subscribe to my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Biden in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to email@example.com.