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VP vetters for McCain and Obama have had similar career paths

By A. James Memmott

June 3, 2008 at 10:35am

Another sign that the Democratic presidential nomination process is over even though it’s not over: Sen. Barack Obama has chosen someone to head his vice-presidential search committee.

James A. Johnson, a Washington insider who’s done this sort of thing before, will size up possible running mates for Obama.

On the other side, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., an equally powerful inside-the-Beltway kind of guy, will coordinate the V.P. search for Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican nominee.

Writing in Sunday’s Week in Review section of The New York Times, Jill Abramson says it’s not surprising that Obama and McCain have asked old Washington hands to take on this task even though they’re running as Washington outsiders.

“Vetting is an extremely tricky and specialized Washington art form,” Abramson writes.

She points out the head of the search has to organize a group whose members grill the possible candidates.

They’ve got to “ferret out skeletons in closets, comb through finances and voting records, and try to anticipate problems that could ignite controversy in the news media.”

Dick Cheney did this for then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 and settled upon himself as the vice presidential nominee.

It would seem unlikely that either Johnson or Culvahouse would follow his example, as neither has run for elective office and each seems more comfortable behind the scenes.

Johnson directed the vice-presidential search in 1984 for Walter Mondale, who chose Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, and again in 2004 for John Kerry, who selected Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Culvahouse hasn’t headed up a vice-presidential screening, but he’s been an adviser to presidents since he was White House counsel to Ronald Reagan.

Though they are from different political parties, Johnson, 64, and Culvahouse, 59, have quite similar career paths.

As a younger man, each worked for a powerful Washington insider. That connection led to bigger and better things inside and outside of government.

Johnson’s mentor and patron was Mondale, the Democratic senator from Minnesota who went on to be vice president under Jimmy Carter.

After working for Mondale, Johnson went on to head Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Company. He was making $6 million to $7 million a year when he left the company in 1998.

Johnson’s now on the board of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and is vice chairman of Perseus LLC, the merchant bank and private equity fund.

Culvahouse, a native of Tennesee, was a protege of Sen. Howard Baker of Tennesee, the former Senate majority leader.

He served as Baker’s chief legislative assistant and counsel in the senate. And soon after Baker became Reagan’s chief of staff in 1987, Culvahouse became White House counsel.

Culvahouse is now chair of O’Melveny & Meyers LLP, a Los Angeles law firm with offices in cities throughout the world, including Washington.

Its partners have been involved in Democratic, as well as Republican, politics.

Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state, is a senior partner in the firm. He headed the 2000 Florida recount effort for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Ron Klain, then a partner at O’Melveny & Meyers, was general counsel to the Democratic recount effort.

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