While My Guitar Gently Veeps

Please, could we give the Veepstakes just a little more substance?

Who doesn’t love the Veepstakes? Not only is the whole game fun to play—Clue and CandyLand rolled into one!—but it also has a delightful seasonality about it, a breezy, summery quality that lets us know that the heat of general election season really is, once again, upon us. So we don’t fault the Veepstakes for its self-indulgence or its tendency to legitimize campaign-generated rumor or the fact that it does the voting public little good, save for the titillation of being part of a rhetorical roller coaster that speeds along its own question-mark curve. Hey, it’s the Veepstakes. It’s tradition.

And this year’s enactment of that tradition, it’s worth noting, has been especially—amusingly—roller-coaster-esque. We’ve seen TV reporters become particularly aggressive in their questioning of their running-mate-worthy guests, dedicating, sometimes, half an interview to their attempts to trick those guests into admitting they’re being vetted. We’ve heard veep-trail talk of Viagra and facial hair and political pawn-ery. We’ve seen the candidates’ suitors publicly declaring their devotion by acting as surrogates—The gas tax holiday is a terrific idea! The surge is definitely not working!—for their candidates. We’ve seen front-runners-who’ve-dropped-out (Jim Webb, Bobby Jindal) and front-runners-who’ve-been-decided-against (Hillary Clinton, apparently). We’ve even seen one wooer, Charlie Crist, remedy the potential liability of his erstwhile confirmed-bachelorhood with a shotgun engagement. Truly, excitement all around!

But though its melody will linger on, the Veepstakes’s song will soon be ending. The short lists, we’re told, are now really short; the announcements of the Veepstakes Winners will come, you know, “soon.” (The Washington Post might just win the award for the Most Space-Wasting Veepstakes-Related Headline, with this, from the front page of last Friday’s paper: “McCain May Act Soon on VP Pick.” His convention is basically a month away; when else but “soon” would McCain announce his choice?) Word on the street—K Street, anyway—is that things will come down to The Two Tims, Kaine (Obama) and Pawlenty (McCain). But, again, nothing’s for sure.

With that in mind, here’s a thought: If we’re going to spend so much time and space speculating about the candidates’ potential running mates, then why don’t we fill the Veepstakes’s news hole not just with rumination, but also with some substance? Instead of simply rehashing rumor—It’s so gonna be Webb!—and peddling predictions—Jindal’s a lock!—why don’t we complement the gossip with some conversation? Perhaps with some edifying discussion about why we should, you know, care about all this in the first place? Seriously. Why don’t we spend some of our remaining Veepstakes time—not all, but some—talking about the office at the core of all the speculation?

The vice presidency, after all, being Constitutionally unfettered—indeed, the only demands that document makes of a veep is that he break ties in the Senate and stay alive—makes for a kind of moldable seat for its occupant. Unlike the presidency, in which, by design, the office transcends the man, when it comes to the vice presidency, the man transcends the office. And that office has evolved over the years from the presidential contest’s consolation prize (and not much of a consolation, at that: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” John Adams famously wrote of his own veep experience) into a position that more nearly reflects the office’s “second in command” shorthand. In the past sixteen years, in particular—and the past seven-and-a-half, in even more particular—the office has attained unprecedented power.

Will the power trend continue with the next VP, whoever he or she may be? Or will the next resident of One Observatory Circle scale back his or her influence? Will we see a future veep in the mold of John “All I Have to Do Is Have a Pulse” Adams? Or of John “Not Worth a Pitcher of Warm Piss” Garner? Or Garret “Assistant to the President” Hobart? Or Al “I Do My Thing, You Do Yours” Gore? Or Dick “I Do My Thing, You Can Do Yours If I Say So” Cheney?

Most likely, the vice presidency—for the next four years, and the foreseeable future—will be cast in the Gore model. The next veep will probably be a true executive deputy, with his or her own governmental responsibilities and, importantly, stewardship over his or her own policy priorities. But that, of course, is mere—and more—speculation. Vice presidential power going forward may be more than Gore’s, or less. We won’t know how the office will evolve until we know who its next occupant will be. But in the meantime, as we find ourselves nearly at the end of 2008’s Veepstakes game, it’d be nice to do a little talking about the four (or eight?) years that will come after the game ends—not to speculate about what the office will look like, or about who, ultimately, will occupy it, but to discuss what it should look like, how we’d like it to be shaped. Which would be a change in the Veepstakes’ rules, sure. But it’d also make the game, at this point, much more fun to play.

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