The man John Kerry has selected to head his search for a vice president is well schooled in politics as the art of the possible. James A. Johnson, who came to national political prominence as executive assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale in 1977 and now serves as vice chairman of the merchant bank Perseus, LLC, has spent the last 20 years balancing between Democratic and Republican administrations. And he has managed that high-wire act so deftly that a profile in the Washington Post, which often skewers the best-connected, ran for 4,000 words but failed to find any detractors willing to speak on the record. Going into a vice-presidential vetting process that is already abuzz with rumors of rifts and intrigue, however, Johnson will need all the political savvy he can muster.
Since chairing the failed 1984 Mondale campaign, Johnson's career appears to have been a straight shot up. He founded a corporate consulting firm called Public Strategies, which advised companies on strategic planning. His partner? Richard Holbrooke, who went on to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and is a perpetual short-lister for secretary of state in a Democratic administration. Following that, Johnson joined Lehman Brothers, where he remained a managing director until 1990, adding wealth to his list of accomplishments. In 1990, Johnson joined Fannie Mae, a major coup for a Democrat to head the group during a Republican administration. Johnson stayed in that role until 1999, also serving as chairman of both the Brookings Institution and the Kennedy Center – the consummate Washington, D.C. power trifecta.
In each of those roles, Johnson had to manage a myriad of competing demands. In 1996, for example, Fannie Mae came under fire from the D.C. City Council. Fannie Mae is not required to pay state and local income taxes, an exemption that the council said deprived the cash-strapped district of $300 million annually. Perhaps to counteract that criticism, Johnson convinced Fannie Mae and other major D.C. organizations to form the Public Education Reform Partnership, a group committed to raising education standards in the district. Johnson also made large personal contributions to the Kennedy Center to support free concerts open to those unable to afford tickets to the center's regular events.
In part because of his work on those projects and others that emphasized community outreach, Howard University, a historically black college, gave Johnson an honorary degree in 1999. From criticism to success, Johnson used connections and money to smooth the way.
By the time Johnson left his three chairmanships, he had accrued an incredible set of contacts across Washington. And his rise was not a shock: in 1969, participants in an anti-war retreat speculated that either Johnson or Bill Clinton would be president one day. Although Mr. Clinton attained the highest office, Johnson's trifecta put him in a position of considerable, if unelected, power. As Tony Podesta, a powerful D.C. lobbyist, said of Johnson's early presidential possibilities, "Picking the next vice president is close, unless he decides to pull a Cheney…We could do and have done worse as a country."
Johnson's selection as Kerry's point man in the VP search came as a surprise to some within the campaign. But reports suggest that his personal friendship with Kerry – Johnson and his wife Maxine Isaacs spend time with the Heinz-Kerrys at nearby vacation homes in Ketchum, Idaho – instead of his role as a political operative may have been the deciding factor. And friends of Johnson's say he is a great fit. Michael Berman, currently a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group and a friend of Johnson's for 40 years, says, "When I saw Kerry had selected him, I thought it was about a perfect choice as one could make. He is as discreet a person as I have known and very thorough."
Johnson will face some big challenges picking the person to complement Kerry. Already there is talk of an inter-adviser rift between those who believe the VP should shore up the South and those who think the Midwest is the key constituency. Private meetings with members of Congress and other Democratic leaders have already begun. The Kerry campaign dismisses any rift, but after only a week of vetting, such early whispers surely mean that Johnson has a tough job ahead of him.
People who have watched Johnson speculate that if he does this job right, an even bigger one could await him in a Kerry administration. Some believe he is becoming the party's new Warren Christopher, a well-respected elder statesman. Christopher was President Clinton's chief VP vetter and went on to become secretary of state. Perhaps Johnson will be Kerry's treasury secretary. Or maybe chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing friend Alan Greenspan. Those are just some of the incentives for Johnson to find Kerry the best possible running mate.
By Beth Lester