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Life on the Vice-Presidential Short List

Life on the Vice-Presidential Short List

There will be blood tests. Interrogations about junior high. An analysis of tax returns.

It is an experience Joseph R. Biden Jr. knows all too well from his time on the vice-presidential short list 12 years ago.

Much about Mr. Biden’s own search for a running mate has been nontraditional. He has publicly mused about his criteria. He is not considering men. Above all, his choice could be the most important in years: At 77, Mr. Biden has said he views himself as a “transition candidate.” Left unsaid: His vice president could very well end up being the president next.

Yet as much as Mr. Biden’s process is unique, its contours are familiar. Late last month, he told a local television station that his campaign had begun “doing the background checks” — the latest sign that he is moving toward a short list of candidates.

If history is a guide, Mr. Biden’s top contenders should expect to submit themselves to a process that veterans liken to a series of graphic medical procedures. Extraneous? Maybe. But, well, sometimes that’s the vice presidency, too.

“They basically are disassembling your entire life,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a former Democratic governor of Kansas who, along with Mr. Biden, was vetted extensively by the Obama campaign in 2008. “It was as intrusive and probing as anything I’ve ever been through or would hope to ever go through again.”

Evan Bayh, a former Democratic senator from Indiana and a repeat vice-presidential contestant, somewhat famously compared the vetting process to a colonoscopy — “except they use the Hubble telescope on you.”

Indeed, when Barack Obama called Mr. Biden in June 2008 to request permission to vet him, Mr. Biden initially said no. Finally, he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I agreed to go through the vetting process, but not with a whole lot of enthusiasm.”

Ms. Sebelius said Mr. Obama had called her when she was at a hotel for a meeting. Like Mr. Biden, she tried to persuade him not to vet her. “I spent a little bit of time telling him why that was a terrible idea,” she recalled. He was undeterred: A member of his vetting team was waiting to speak to her in a room downstairs.

One of the cardinal rules of the process is secrecy, and nearly everyone obeys. Most potential running mates do not speak about the search, if they acknowledge they are being vetted at all. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who was vetted by Bill Clinton in 1992, said he flew on a friend’s private plane to the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Ark., for a meeting so almost no one would know where he was.

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