The Mondale I Knew

As a Jimmy Carter speechwriter, I saw the Minnesotan as a groundbreaker—the first modern VP. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris owe him a debt.

Walter Mondale was, according to The New York Times, “the first VP to serve as a genuine partner of the president.”

I witnessed this firsthand as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. For one thing, he was the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing, the first to have a staff working on a daily basis with that of the president himself.

This made the former U.S. senator from Minnesota the first modern vice president to spend his tenure as a functioning member of the chief executive’s governing and political team.

Immediately before Mondale, vice presidents were kept at a distance from the White House. They worked across West Executive Avenue in what is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. That’s where Spiro Agnew notoriously received his payoffs from government contractors from his days as Maryland governor. Before him, vice presidents lacked even an office there. Richard Nixon spent his eight years in an office in the Senate Office Building across the corridor from future rival John F. Kennedy. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, once went more than a year without talking with his president.

The Mondale upgrade in real estate marked an historic elevation in influence. Starting with the Humphrey protege, vice presidents have come to work each day just a few doors from the Oval Office. In Washington, there is no more vital geography than that. Location, location, location, as they say in real estate.

I remember interviewing Vice President Joe Biden one day when he pointed over his shoulder and said, “five times a day, he will call me over there to join him at a meeting.”

This close working relationship was unimaginable through much of the country’s history. Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president might well have spent his entire four years back home in Maine, which he almost did. FDR never told Harry Truman about the existence of the atom bomb. Lyndon Johnson, despite having been Senate Majority Leader, was kept at extreme arm’s length from the daily politics and leadership of JFK’s New Frontier. It was a source of enormous, daily frustration to him, embittering him right up to his tragic swearing-in after the horror of President Kennedy’s assassination.

I record these facts because I witnessed their importance during my four years working for President Carter. Every day we were fortunate to spend our days alongside a Mondale staff that was not only highly capable, but clearly engaged in an active partnership in an entire array of policy and political matters. (It included Washington heavyweights like Richard Moe and an unlikely future conservative, Charles Krauthammer.) Mondale was a tonic for some of the lesser ideas that got tossed around in meetings and even enacted, including a midterm cabinet shuffle—the surprisingly dull culmination of the president’s intriguing Camp David sessions to revamp his presidency. Carter looked at “Fritz” Mondale as his friend and colleague whose political trajectory—Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor party, state attorney general,  the U.S. Senate, northern liberal—was a useful analog to Carter’s rise in the changing South—farmer, Annapolis grad, the Georgia governorship, a modern moderate take on what it means to be a Democrat. That set the standard for us and, as it turns out, for every such relationship ever since.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.