It’s not just a meal: Inside the nation’s most secretive and exclusive power lunch

Al Gore came armed with a police memo, George HW Bush with jokes and Dan Quayle with requests from Cabinet Secretary. Mike Pence was very patient.

Although they differed in their tactics, the vice presidents had the same goal – to maximize the office’s most valuable hour, a weekly lunch with the president.

For almost 40 years, these regular lunches were a basic ritual for the Vice Presidency, a valuable and low-key 60 minutes for the Commander-in-Chief and his No. 2 to catch up, change gossip and think about strategy. The lunches were among Washington’s most closely watched meetings, shrouded in mystery that has frustrated chiefs of staff and confused historians. This is because no one else is usually in the room.

President Reagan and Vice President George HW Bush discuss the budget at lunchtime at Truman Balcony on August 1, 1985.

(White House Photographic Office)

Excerpts have appeared on how Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden prepare lunch. As they nibble on soup or salad and discuss politics and politics, the country’s most powerful couple are entertained on a nearby monitor by an ongoing slide show of their public events, according to advisers.

A recent book, “This Will Not Pass”, presents the lunches as flat – lacking “a real depth of personal and political intimacy” – and data show that lunches occur less frequently. While Biden and Harris have eaten together about every two weeks during their first year in office, they’ve only had lunch twice since January, according to a LA Times review of Harris’ schedule.

This is strange considering that Biden, as vice president, considered his weekly lunch with President Obama to be inviolable. He promised to give Harris the same courtesy. All of this raises a serious question: Does Harris miss an opportunity to push her issues with the boss and convey to the nation – and political rivals – that she has unparalleled exclusive access to the leaders of the free world?

A look at how other vice presidents used the country’s most exclusive power lunch suggests that the answer is yes.

The lunches are “part of regularly sending a signal that the two are working together and that the vice president is important – so the perception and reality of access”, says Joel Goldstein, who has much written on Vice Presidential Relations. “There are other ways to access it, but it’s important to know that you will have an hour that you can bring things up.”

The vice presidency was described by a former occupier as an office unworthy of a bucket of hot urine. The lunches were designed to solve that problem by giving vice presidents more private access to their boss. They began in 1977 when Walter Mondale tried to turn the vice presidency from a political hospice into a center of power. One month before he took the oath, he filed a claim in one 11-page memo who demanded a weekly meeting, in addition to the right to enter the oval office whenever he wanted. The meeting soon turned into a weekly lunch that has been adopted by all the White House since then.

“This was the most valuable time Mondale had with Carter,” Goldstein said. “These lunches were sacred. There was nothing that they would just casually blow off on either side.”

The content of the lunches – at least the parts that historians and aides have speculated about – provide revealing insights into how presidents and their vice presidents interact.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are smiling at a White House dinner table.

President Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden at a lunch meeting in 2014. Biden considered the weekly meetings inviolable and promised to give Kamala Harris the same courtesy.

(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Mondale had more experience from Washington than President Carter, a former governor and peanut farmer, which made him a valuable adviser on foreign policy and legislation.

George HW Bush, a former congressman and head of the CIA, had a similar advantage over President Reagan, an actor and California governor. But he had to approach his boss carefully. The two had been bitter rivals for the 1980 presidential nomination. Over tacos or enchiladas on Thursdays, when the White House chef often prepared his version of Mexican food, Bush tried to build trust. The best way to do that was through humor – Reagan started most meetings with a joke.

Bush, a New England patrician, was hardly a comedian. So he sought help from friends and colleagues, including professionals. He often called Ray Siller, who wrote for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” for tips, according to Chase Untermeyer, an aide to the then vice president. Untermeyer can still remember Bush trying out a joke he got from his brother about a guy named McGee, a bar and a British spy.

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“I do not remember hearing any recitation of how the joke went, but I can easily imagine old Ronald Reagan, an appreciator of Irish humor, laughing,” said Untermeyer. The jokes, Untermeyer said, helped “beautify a friendship that can be said to be a surprise to both of them.”

When Bush became president in 1989, he held lunches, an act that Vice President Quayle greatly appreciated. The weekly meetings immediately made him more relevant in the administration because officials would see them on the public schedule, Quayle said in an oral history in 2002 for the Miller Center. “I would probably get some calls. “Would you mention this?” “Either they had mentioned it and failed, they did not want to mention it or they did not have access to the president,” he said.

Quayle said he was open about being a channel.

“I said, ‘I just want to tell you that Secretary Brady came by this morning,'” Quayle said, giving an example involving Finance Minister Nicholas Brady. “‘He’s really worried about the grassroots battle going on between the state and the Treasury on various issues’ – which happened all the time.”

    Vice President Dan Quayle briefs President George Bush during the White House luncheon.

Vice President Dan Quayle and President George HW Bush met for lunch in January 1991. Quayle later said the meetings immediately made him more relevant in the administration.

(David Valdez / White House)

Gore, known for his quirky pickiness, ordered his staff to create a weekly memo he could take with him. The memorandum – which lists points about technology, the environment and other initiatives – was seen as a priority by his aides, a chance to shape which of Gore’s priorities made it before the president.

Gore would use the document to get Clinton’s sign-off and write short notes from the president, said Elaine Kamarck, a former adviser to Gore. Having that approval enabled Gore and his staff to make sure “we did not have anyone from the West Wing who said ‘You can not do that’,” she said.

Kamarck said the lunches were a weekday until the relationship broke down over Clinton’s deal with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (The couple ate lunch the same day the Clinton trial began in the Senate.)

Vice President Dick Cheney had such an enormous influence over the Bush administration’s policies that he was less dependent on the weekly lunches to exercise his power. It is estimated that Cheney attended between 75% and 85% of President Bush’s meetings, according to “Days of fire“, a story of the Bush presidency.

Biden, as vice president, let President Obama select the menu. Like Mondale, he had more Washington experience than Obama and used the lunches to influence the president in budget, foreign policy and other issues he cared about. The lunches could also stray into a deeply personal territory.

After a brief discussion of Iraq politics at a luncheon on April 1, 2015, Biden told Obama about his son Beau’s experimental brain cancer surgery at MD Anderson in Houston.

“I was in pain and the president could see it,” wrote Biden in a memoir from 2017, which describes a meal that took place about two months before his son’s death. “I looked up and found Barack in tears.”

“He is not a demonstrative man, public or private, and I felt bad,” Biden wrote. “I found myself trying to comfort him.”

President Trump walks with Vice President Mike Pence in the White House.

President Trump joins Vice President Mike Pence after a meeting in 2017. Trump kept the weekly lunch tradition, even though it was more free-flowing.

(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Ted Kaufman, a former temporary U.S. senator from Delaware and a Biden friend, said he would not give the lunches “all the credit” for helping turn a professional relationship into a friendship. But, he added, “you would be hard pressed to find a president and a vice president who, at the end of their term – especially eight years – that they actually liked each other.”

Even President Trump, who broke most traditions, kept the weekly lunch, even though it was a more free-flowing and chaotic affair than in previous administrations. He and Vice President Pence took their chiefs of staff with them. Other officials came and went as they pleased. Although Pence kept a mental list of talking points, he could not count on getting through it because of Trump’s tendency to derail conversations, according to Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff.

Harris almost always meets Biden without staff. A White House official said Biden sees lunch as “a critical part of the relationship.”

“I made the same agreement with her as Barack and I did,” Biden said in an interview with People magazine one week after his inauguration. “I wanted her to be available to participate in everything I did. I wanted her to be the last person in the room at every important decision. We eat lunch alone once a week – that’s the deal – when we’re both in the country. ”

It’s not really the deal anymore. While weekly meals started as a regular affair, they have slowed down. An adviser to Harris said the lunches were curtailed for various reasons – outbreaks of covid-19 in the White House affecting Harris and her husband, a hectic travel schedule and a war in Ukraine. Advisers say the two are often seen in other places, including when Biden stops by Harris’ office unannounced.

President Clinton gestures as he sits at a lunch table with Vice President Al Gore.

President Clinton at his weekly luncheon with Vice President Al Gore in 1993. Gore’s staff created a weekly memo specifically for the luncheons.

(Greg Gibson / Associated Press)

But the decline in lunches, which was first flagged by Real Clear Politics, has delved into larger questions about Harris’ role and exactly what she adds to the relationship.

Former and current White House advisers acknowledge Biden’s decades of Senate experience and two terms as vice president make it harder for Harris to assert his congressional strategy. But they claim that she brings the perspective of someone who has spent most of his life outside of Washington, California, and who has a political profile closer to the future of the Democratic Party.

When they have met for lunch, Harris’ goal in general has been to establish a bond with Biden, say assistants. Like Bush and Reagan, Harris and Biden endured a controversial primary campaign and did not know each other well before taking office. They eat in the president’s dining room, just outside the Oval Office. The menu is usually quite simple and healthy: soup, salad or sandwich. Unlike Obama, Biden lets Harris choose his meal.

Assistants say the conversation is often informal, from politics to politics to personal matters. From time to time, Biden has been known to call in an adviser like Mike Donilon to show them the latest vote or Jennifer O’Malley Dillon for an update on the Democratic National Committee.

“It’s not a ‘Here’s my to-do list of things to get you focused on,'” the White House official said. discuss’.”

A few times they have interrupted lunch to take a walk through the White House courtyard, just two.

Thomas Suh Lauder of The Times’ data and graphics team contributed to this report.

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