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Joel K. Goldstein: The No. 1 Expert on the Second-in-Command


A handful of legal scholars will, over the course of their careers, make a substantial contribution to their field.

Still fewer will help open the doors to that field, educating not just students and fellow scholars, but the public at large, through media op-eds and interviews.

And then there’s Joel Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, who has helped shape the very institution that is the subject of his work.

Joel K. Goldstein in Scott Hall's courtroom

Prof. Joel K. Goldstein in the John K. Pruellage Courtroom of Scott Hall

An esteemed professor for more than 25 years, Goldstein has taught hundreds of students constitutional law and has also taught courses on admiralty law, contracts, the presidency and the constitution, judges and judging, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

But what Goldstein is most known for is his scholarship on the office of the vice presidency. Today he is recognized nationally and internationally as the No. 1 expert on the second-in-command. He has authored two books and dozens of articles and book chapters on the subject, and he is highly sought after for media analysis – typically in spurts every four years during the presidential races, but much more frequently during the Trump and Biden administrations.

Goldstein retired from full-time teaching in summer 2019 and now can be found in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, enjoying more time with his family, as well as writing, lecturing and perhaps teaching occasionally.

And of course, during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, his name could be found in a news article or radio interview almost daily. In virtual press briefings held by the State Department about American democracy, he gave two presentations to dozens of foreign journalists, fielding questions from reporters across the globe. He also authored papers on presidential continuity and the office of the vice presidency that were published by the White House Transition Project, a nonprofit organization that provides information for incoming White House staff to help streamline the transition process from one administration to the next, and those papers were distributed to both presidential campaigns.

In the following article, Goldstein discusses some of his career highlights and reflects on how the office of the vice presidency has evolved.

Becoming ‘Media Famous’

“Well, I’m hardly famous, but I started getting media calls over time,” Goldstein said. “In the early years after my [first] book came out [1982], I would occasionally write an op-ed. In 1988, I wrote a couple of memos to Gov. Dukakis about VP selection. I started getting media calls a little bit in the early 1990s. My first semester of teaching at SLU [1994] I was invited to be on NPR’s ‘Talk of the Nation’ program, and they had me on with Arthur Schlesinger, who was this Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and I actually got to miss a faculty meeting; I think the faculty might’ve listened to part of the interview. I was right at the beginning of my career and I think the faculty was kind of proud of the exposure, and it also got me out of the meeting, which was icing on the cake.”

Goldstein said it was around Clinton’s second inauguration (January 1997) when the Washington Post published a big piece about Gore and the vice presidency that he started getting more phone calls, and then it took off in the 2000/2004 period. “There was a guy at a Dallas morning paper who used to call me and it almost became a joke – ‘an every-four-year phone call,’” he said. “I started getting a lot of calls about Cheney.”

Goldstein said that in December 2006 he developed excruciating back pain that prevented him from even walking, so much so that his doctor told him to go to the emergency room immediately. While waiting for an ambulance to arrive, Goldstein’s assistant called saying the New York Times was trying to reach him for an article on Cheney. “I thought, ‘How often do you get an interview by the New York Times?' So I did the interview, the ambulance showed up, they took me to the emergency room. … And the next day I was in the New York Times. It probably did more than the Vicodin to ease the pain.”

Conversations with Vice President Joe Biden

“The first time I met Biden was in 2009,” Goldstein said. “Right after he became VP I got a call from his office that they were trying to set up a meeting of some vice-presidential scholars to meet with Biden and just talk about the vice presidency. They asked me if I would come and who I would recommend be invited. There were maybe half a dozen people, and we met at the Naval Observatory (the vice president’s official residence) and had dinner and talked. It was Biden and a few of his staff.

“Later in his first term there was a second meeting,” Goldstein continued, “and at the beginning of his second term, there was another meeting, but they just invited me to talk about how vice presidents handle their second term.

You know more [about the vice presidency] than anybody who hasn't been VP."

(Then) Vice President Joe Biden

“And then I was on ‘Morning Joe’ with him during the 2016 Democratic convention. Before I go on I’m sitting next to Biden, and Morning Joe [Scarborough] says to Biden something like ‘How did you learn about being VP?’ off the air. Biden says, ‘I talked to Mondale and my chief of staff who worked for Gore, and we had these meetings with VP experts’ – he turns to me and says, ‘Joel, how many of those did we have?’ And there were a couple times he said things like, ‘You know more about the vice presidency than anybody,’ and I started laughing, because I think that somebody who’d been vice president obviously knows more than I do. I said that, and he said, ‘Well, you know more than anybody who hasn’t been VP.’

And he actually called me afterwards and said if I was ever in D.C. to get in touch with him, so I did. I saw him once in spring 2017 after he’d left office and spent an hour and a half or so talking to him. As a former vice president, he had an office in a government building. There was a reception area, and his scheduler took me back to meet with him.

“One thing that was striking and taught me a lesson was that, as the scheduler was walking me through this long area, he was standing outside the door to his office waiting for me. And I thought about all the times when somebody – like a student – would come to meet with me, I’d be on the phone or finishing up an email or something, and here Biden was making a point of – he was treating me as if I was special, whereas by all rights he should’ve been seated at his desk doing his work, because he’s a hell of a lot more important than I was. By doing that, he was really sending a message. It taught me a lesson about how to deal with people and how to send a message to somebody – that they really are important and getting your attention. That’s who Biden is.”

Documenting the Evolution of the Vice Presidency

Joel Goldstein teaching“The big change that took place was when Jimmy Carter was elected president and Walter Mondale vice president,” Goldstein said. “They changed the office in an enduring way; they brought the VP into the White House and made him a central part of the president’s inner circle. Carter was dedicated to it, and Mondale was very thoughtful in the way they went about doing it. Mondale wanted to be more of a general adviser and troubleshooter, but to do that he needed certain resources – access to the president, he needed his people to be involved in the meetings, so they created a set of resources that would enable the vision.

“The surprise has been that this innovation of Carter and Mondale’s was successfully transmitted to other presidents and vice presidents, and it has continued. The presidents and vice presidents we’ve had since then have been very different in a lot of ways, about half Democrats and half Republicans, but they’ve all followed that basic approach. That was the topic of my second book, how this change became institutionalized so that it wasn’t something unique to Carter and Mondale, who after all, had only one term and lost in a landslide. An enduring and important constitutional change happened through the repetition of practice.

“I think most of my students over the years would’ve assumed that the vice presidency has always been how it is now,” Goldstein continued. “They wouldn’t realize how much of a laughingstock the office was for most of its history. When I started doing work on the subject it was pretty much a disparaged office. People would make jokes about it. Daniel Webster turned down the chance to be on the ticket saying ‘I don’t propose to be buried until I’m dead.’ Johnny Carson once said, ‘Anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can become vice president.’”

In one 2012 news story Goldstein was quoted in, he was referred to as “a vice presidential expert.” A national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich, read it and “thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, that someone could be an expert on the vice presidency.” Leibovich contacted Goldstein wanting to write a profile on him, and while on the phone launched zinger after zinger his way. “Did I considered myself a heartbeat away from presidential scholarship?  Did presidential scholars send me to funerals of foreign presidential scholars? And so on.”

“He said he wrote for the Sunday Magazine and for the Styles section, and I said something like ‘I’d be happy to be in the Sunday Magazine,’ and he said, ‘A presidential expert would have to die first and then you’d be elevated.’” The profile ran in the Sunday Styles section. The next year Leibovich authored a bestselling book, and Goldstein helped bring him to SLU LAW as keynote speaker for the 2013 Millstone Lecture.

Over the years, besides Biden, Goldstein has met vice presidents Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale (who quoted him in his memoir), and Dan Quayle.

Biden, for those curious, is the 15th former VP to become president. “Nine VPs became president when their predecessor died (eight instances) or in one case (Richard M. Nixon) resigned,” Goldstein noted. “Four sitting vice presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin van Buren and George H.W. Bush) were elected president, and two former VPs (Nixon and Biden) were elected president.”

Goldstein says Dick Cheney and Mike Pence’s offices never contacted him – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Goldstein is credited with coining the nickname “sycophant-in-chief” to refer to Pence’s staunch loyalty to Trump amidst the high turnover rate of most of the rest of Trump’s administration, a nickname subsequently picked up by media outlets including The New Yorker and NBC News.

Goldstein also has not yet met Kamala Harris. As would be expected, though, he has weighed in on the historic nature of Harris occupying the vice presidency.

“After 58 elections in which 116 times men were elected president and vice president, and twice when men became VP through the nomination and confirmation procedure of the 25th Amendment, VP Harris is the first woman to be chosen for one of our two national offices. That makes her election a historic moment. As a woman, a person of color, and a first-generation American, her achievement reflects the high American ideal that ours is an inclusive society that values, and is more successful when it draws on the talents of the entire population, not simply those who have been privileged.” 

Goldstein says that in its early months, the Harris vice presidency seems likely to continue and build upon the pattern of consequential vice presidencies.

“President Biden has said she would be the last person in the room, the phrase that represented his arrangement with President Obama, and she has spent a lot of most days with President Biden. The time together is important not only to give her an opportunity to weigh in on issues but also so she can hear the briefings he hears, so they can develop a relationship, and to send the message that she has access, a message that is crucial to any vice president in enabling her or him to take on important assignments for the president.”

But he also notes that given the 50-50 Senate split, Harris may be called to vote as tie-breaker so often it could impact her other vice presidential duties. “You can't be in the room at the White House if you have to be down at Capitol Hill to break a tie vote. You can't be traveling around the world to meet with leaders on the international stage, or you can't be traveling domestically," he said in a February CNN article.

Time will tell how the vice presidency will continue to evolve and how Harris will leave her unique mark. One thing’s for certain – Joel Goldstein will be watching and writing along every step of the way.

— By Maria Tsikalas