Joel Goldstein '75 is not particularly dependent upon the spotlight. His friends describe him variously as low-key, generous, modest and thoughtful, usually emphasizing his quiet and wry sense of humor.
But during election years, Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University, temporarily swaps his academic cap and gown for the garb of a political commentator. Goldstein is one of the nation’s leading experts on the vice presidency, making him a valuable go-to man for media outlets when, once every election cycle, they become obsessed over the question of who will be tapped as a vice presidential nominee by the leading campaigns.
Goldstein’s area of interest is not a second-string frivolity in his mind. Rather, it is tied to a deep political curiosity he has had from a young age, as University history professor Martha Sandweiss recalls. She and Goldstein have been friends since the third grade.
“We were in the same class forever,” Goldstein said.
Sandweiss has a vivid memory of the day in their grade school class when it was announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
“For all the students it was shocking and disruptive,” Sandweiss said. “But I actually remember Joel crying that day because I think he was the only person to have understood it as a tragedy as opposed to something which made the state different or something to talk to our parents about.”
At the University, this passion flowered into a rigorous pursuit of his academic interests. Goldstein first discovered his academic passion for the vice presidency in particular in a course on party politics taught by the late politics professor Stanley Kelley, Jr.
While Goldstein was searching for a topic to write about for a paper for Kelley’s class, Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned from office to escape indictment in a tax scandal. His father, who was watching the affair unfold on television, gave him what would turn out to be life-changing advice.
“Richard Nixon was going to have to nominate someone under the 25th Amendment for the first time in history,” Goldstein said. “My father had been watching the Today Show over breakfast and had seen a discussion of it, and he thought it sounded like an interesting topic. My father was really a brilliant guy. He was really interested in constitutional law, and he passed that down to me.”
Goldstein became interested in the idea of presidential succession. His senior thesis and graduate school research at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, both dealt with the vice presidency.
Besides his academic work, Goldstein was elected chairman of The Daily Princetonian after years spent reporting on sports and the faculty. This positioned him as the lead student on the paper.
Goldstein’s leadership style at the ‘Prince,’ like his personality, was thoughtful, collected and forward-thinking, according to Andrew Pollack ’75, a close friend of Goldstein’s who worked with him on the 'Prince' and now writes for The New York Times. Pollack recalled how, while sorting through memorabilia from his Princeton years, he came across a typewritten letter from Goldstein to the board.
“It was a long letter that laid out the various beats he thought we needed to cover better and so on,” Pollack said.
Goldstein says his stint as a newsman helped him become a better historian, particularly improving his writing and interviewing skills.
“There was a lot of interviewing — that’s something I still do,” Goldstein said. Reporting “put you in a position where you were interviewing people who were, in a lot of cases, very interesting or very smart or very prominent, and you got used to dealing with that sort of situation even though you were only 20 or whatever.”
But Goldstein was more than a one-trick pony. Various friends noted his passion for sports, particularly tennis, which both he and his son have played avidly. In 1974, only two years after the Nixon administration opened up relations with China, he was chosen as one of 11 students to tour that country as some of the first American visitors in decades.
And within academia, Goldstein has written on topics as diverse as constitutional law, affirmative action and admiralty law, among others.
Still, as an authority on the vice presidency, one question bears asking: Who is Goldstein’s favorite vice president?
“I think Walter Mondale would be,” Goldstein said, citing his transformation of the office from a position of relative powerlessness to an advisory role with direct access to the President. “He figured out a vision of the office which could make it a contributing part of the government.”
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