Scott Applewhite  /  AP file
Because then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's campaign officials hadn't fully vetted Dan Quayle, they were unable to respond well to the media frenzy that followed the selection of the relatively unknown Indiana senator as Bush' running mate.
By contributor
updated 7/1/2004 2:09:52 PM ET 2004-07-01T18:09:52

Long before he was the impresario of the Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes was the message meister of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. I covered Ailes at the time, and one of the tales he told me is relevant to Sen. John Kerry as he chooses a running mate now. Ailes' lesson: Don't throw a hot dog into a shark tank.

Say what? Well, what Ailes was talking about (at a post-election seminar) was the way Bush the Elder, in secret, had chosen as his No. 2 an obscure senator — Dan Quayle of Indiana — and then had tossed him into the media whorl without introduction. The result, at the Republican convention in New Orleans, was a feeding frenzy of rumor and misinformation.

Word spread that Quayle was worth $400 million, which wasn’t true. He was from a wealthy family but didn’t have much money himself. And campaign officials didn’t know every last detail of Quayle’s draft history and their inability to explain it clearly from the start left Quayle looking like a draft dodger, which he wasn’t.

To be sure, Quayle was no Thomas Jefferson, but whatever help he might have given to the ticket was lost in the ensuing campaign fumbles. Bush Senior won the election, of course, but did so despite Quayle, not because of him. Quayle's debut, Ailes recalled, was "like throwing a hot dog into a shark tank."

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Who should Kerry choose?Kerry is being as secretive as his Skull and Bones kinsmen as he prepares to unveil his veep choice soon. At his wife Teresa's Heinz's estate in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Kerry is hashing over the last details of the possibilities, I am told. If he is going to settle on someone almost totally out of the blue (the fascination and nightmare of political reporters) his campaign had better be prepared to answer every conceivable question about the pick in a big fat hurry.

No need to 'go long'
The senator from Massachusetts may want to surprise us all, but he is under no pressure — as Bush the Elder was in 1888 — to "go long" with his choice. Kerry is running neck and neck with Bush the Younger; there is no sense of desperation in his camp, or in the Democratic Party. In some ways the least risky, and therefore most sensible, thing to do is to pick one of the candidates fully vetted by the political and media process — Sen. John Edwards (who ran this time and was vetted by Al Gore in 2000) or Rep. Dick Gephardt, who ran in 1988 and again this time, and is as known as a quantity can get.

The downside, of course, is that while there will be no feeding frenzy, there will be no frenzy at all.

Kerry is operating as if he wants the result of his deliberations to be a shocking surprise. Until now, there have been fewer leaks out of this veep-selection process than any in recent years. He also made no secret of his desire to pull off a daring, out-of-the-box maneuver, and select a Republican, Sen. John McCain, as he running mate. So the potential is there. Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa is known to political insiders, and is close to Kerry personally, but he has "hot dog" potential. Gov. Bill Richarson of New Mexico served in the Clinton cabinet, and was in the headlines from time to time, but, again, has never been subjected to the kind of ferocious scrutiny that a presidential campaign engenders. Sen. Bob Graham ran for president this time around, but no one noticed his campaign. I'm told that the Kerry campaign asked to read all of his voluminous and detailed diaries. (Pity the bright young law grad who has that duty!)

Then there is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who strenuously denies that she would accept the spot — even if Kerry came begging. There is no evidence that he has done so, but if he's looking for someone who is already vetted to the max, but who would still cause a frenzy, then she would be the one. Hillary's been in the shark tank for so long she's one of the sharks.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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