McCain’s Big Ticket?

Mac has miles to go before he Veeps

On yesterday’s This Week with George Stephanopolous, Republican strategist Dan Senor announced that Condoleezza Rice “has been actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning” to become John McCain’s vice presidential nominee.

Wow! That’s huge news, considering that Rice—for, literally, years now—has been insisting that she has zero interest in pursuing any elected office, let alone the vice presidency. (Witness this telling-and-awkward-and-kind-of-hilarious March 2005 exchange between Rice and “Tenacious Tim” Russert.) The prospect of a McRice ticket was all, you know, Very Exciting—until Camp Condi, earlier today, issued a press release clarifying again that, as much as she’d love to join McCain, she’ll be spending the next four years washing her hair.

McCain similarly denied Senor’s Condi-Mate rumor, saying that he hasn’t heard anything from Rice that would indicate running mate interest. Which wouldn’t preclude a Condi-as-Cheneyette situation, of course; there are myriad reasons to explain Condi’s coyness, only one of them being that she genuinely doesn’t desire to become the country’s second-in-command. But the McCain/Rice speculation is, at this point, just that. Merely Cond-jecture.

Which didn’t prevent it from becoming big news yesterday. And the rumor was fueled by the fact that it came on the heels of last week’s Veepstakesapalooza: John McCain’s revelation that—hold onto your hats, everyone!—he’s started to draw up his requisite Running Mate Short List. (Well, not that short: it’s about twenty people long, he said, and contains “every name imaginable.”) Nearly every major outlet, from the AP to the blogs, reported on the start of McCain’s Mating Ritual—all of it causing, The Fix’s Chris Cillizza wrote, a “media firestorm.” In all the Veepcitement, though, few stepped back to consider the newsworthiness of what they were reporting. The firestorm—and all the “McCain Is Officially Looking for a Veep” headlines—add exactly zero new information to what we’ve known for some time now. Consider the other times the fabled Veepstakes have “begun” in the 2008 election:

On February 18 (Wall Street Journal: “Political Perceptions: Let the Veepstakes Begin”)

…and on February 17 (Politico: “Let the Veepstakes Begin!”)

…and on February 8 (ABC News’s Political Radar: “Let the Veepstakes Begin”)

…and on January 22 (The Washington Post’s The Fix: “Veepstakes: Let the Speculation Begin!”)

…and on February 26…2007 (Townhall: “Let the Veepstakes Begin”)

If you believe Daily Kos, of course, the Veepstakes really began on June 8. Of 2006.

Which begs the question: When is the Veepstakes actually news—when a candidate has declared him- or herself to be actively searching for the running mate? Or when the mate-match has already been made?

The reality, of course—and the irony—is that it’s neither: the Veepstakes becomes news when newspeople decide it’s news: in other words, when the pundits begin their speculation. Which is often long before the term “presumptive nominee” has been cautiously appended to a candidate’s name. Veepstakes-ing is a time-honored tradition, one that offers political reporters, in particular, a rare instance of license to engage in some navel gazing—er, analysis—while keeping their speculation rooted in the hard-news-iness of the Running Mate Selection Process. Nothing wrong with that—especially given that the Veepstakes generally pick up speed in the campaign-news black hole between the close of the primaries and the start of the general.

In the 2008 campaign, however, the GOP’s sprinted primary (as opposed to the Dems’ marathoned one) has skewed the Veepstakesing toward McCain—which means, among other things, that as McCain battles for attention against the always-(melo)-dramatic Clinton/Obama battle, Veeptalk becomes an easy way for him to gain free publicity. Take the AP story from last week that made “hard news” of the Veepstakes: in MSNBC’s version of it, under a headline of “McCain compiles list of running mates” came a somewhat ridiculous dek: “Hopes to make announcement before September convention.”

Which is somewhat akin, to use today’s example, to a headline announcing that the Pulitzer deliberations have begun…which then clarifies, in its dek, that the winners are hoped to be decided by the time they’re announced. Of course McCain hopes to make the VP announcement before St. Paul; not since 1956 has a presidential candidate gone to his party’s convention sans a declared running mate. (McCain’s explanation for his early Veep-ing—that he’s hoping it will help prevent another Dan Quayle situation—is flimsy; Quayle’s status as George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1992 was questioned not because of its timing, but because it involved Dan Quayle.)

The redundancies of the MSNBC dek and its ilk make clear what the pieces they’re meant to summarize suggest: that there’s no real news value, at this point, in McCain’s wide-netted search for a VP; that, after the candidate’s unfortunately named “re-introduction tour” was mocked (or, worse, ignored) by the media, his current Search for a Costar is simply a way for him to keep his name in the headlines. It’s fair enough on McCain’s part to do that, of course; but when you consider the “firestorm” that brewed from his redundant bit of list-making, you can’t help but think that, at this stage in the game, Mac’s most valuable running mate is the press.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.