Joel Goldstein is one of the smartest people in St. Louis. He went to University City High, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, got his doctorate as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then went on to Harvard Law School. He’s been a law professor at Saint Louis University for the past 19 years and just happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on the vice presidency of the United States of America.
With the presidential election now at ‘DEF- CON-1’ intensity, Goldstein has been in high demand. CNN, The New York Times, Washington Post and other outlets from around the globe all want to pick his brain for insights into how a running mate might affect the outcome this November.
“One Saturday, I did 13 interviews,” Goldstein says. “I talked with reporters from China, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain…it’s been pretty active.”
Goldstein fills me in on his media schedule as he walks briskly across campus, quickly adding that all the attention still doesn’t cut him any slack with his wife when it comes to taking out the garbage (never mind that C-SPAN is on hold). “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m 24/7 talking about the vice president; or that I inflict this on my wife and children or friends,” he explains. “If anything, I like to talk about a lot of other things.”
For example, Goldstein also likes to talk about sports: When I ask him if he thinks the Cardinals can do it again this year, he seamlessly shifts from Richard Mentor Johnson (Martin Van Buren’s VP, in case—for some reason—you didn’t already know that) to Mike Matheny’s lineup card. “It’s a funny team this year,” he muses. “They’ve got this incredibly robust offense and this bullpen that sometimes is lights-out, but other times, it falters.” His analysis is spot-on— but weren’t we just talking about Spiro Agnew? Either way, the conversation is intriguing. Professor Goldstein says sometimes, you just have to know your audience and speak accordingly. “If somebody raises it (the vice presidency) at a dinner party, I try to skew the conversation away ‘cause I think that’s not what’s going to be most interesting.” But get him on PBS and Joel Goldstein has moves like Mick Jagger. Even a recent New York Times story featured him on its ‘Style’ pages—his friends couldn’t believe it. But there he was, right next to the Gucci ad. “It’s been a blast,” he says. “It’s a fascinating subject, actually. To some extent, anything you get interested in becomes fascinating.”
I’m surprised when Goldstein tells me he thinks Walter Mondale was the most influential vice president because of the way Mondale changed the office to that of a high- level advisor—a model which has been copied by every administration since. But I’m not surprised to hear that he considers Agnew the worst. I’m heartened, though, when he tells me the Spiro Agnew wristwatch I’ve held on to all these years may actually be worth something! For the most part, Goldstein explains, Agnew (and many of his predecessors) turned the office into a national joke. The job was once considered so inconsequential that instead of working, some of the office-holders wrote books, ran taverns or generally slept their way through their terms—despite being one heart- beat away from the presidency.
So how did Goldstein become captivated by the subject? He says it was his father, the late St. Louis attorney Milton Goldstein, who suggested that he write a course paper on the topic. A senior thesis at Princeton followed, then a doctoral dissertation at Oxford. Books came next, and voila! Saint Louis U. now has the Bob Costas of VP analysis.
There have been some unusual episodes mixed in with Goldstein’s experiences over the years, like the time he was standing in SLU Law School lobby in the mid-’90s when a complete stranger approached him and said, Can you tell me what the vice president does? At first, Goldstein thought that one of his colleagues was playing a prank and had put the stranger up to it. It turns out, the person was about to take a test to gain his American citizenship, and was sure that a question about the VP would be a part of the exam. Goldstein says the man apparently wandered into the law school looking for answers. “It was total irony that here was this guy, coming up to the first person he saw, to ask this question because he was totally baffled about the vice presidency. And it just happened to be someone—for better or worse—who made this the major issue he studies.” Nobody knows if the man passed his citizenship test, but like anyone who has spent much time talking with Goldstein on the topic, he probably went away with much more information than he could ever possibly use.
We’ve been talking for about 45 minutes and I can tell there are likely more interviewers waiting in the wings. After the election, however, Professor Goldstein knows his rock-star status will likely take a four-year hiatus. And besides, it’s almost November and the garbage is starting to pile up. He’s way too smart to let that happen.