Walter Mondale Changed the Vice Presidency

Before him, it was often a humiliating do-nothing job.

Anyone who actually met Walter Mondale—and millions who didn’t—know he was an accomplished, decent and amusing man. Fewer understand that he was the first Vice President of the United States who wasn’t a punch line. And fewer still grasp what revolutionizing his office actually meant.

That story properly begins with Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, who famously told the press that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm piss.” When reporters for family newspapers changed piss” to spit”, he called them pantywaists.” Garner’s successors hardly fared better. Roosevelt died before telling Harry Truman about the atomic bomb and Dwight Eisenhower admitted he’d have to think for a week to come up with anything his vice-president, Richard Nixon, had done.

John F. Kennedy humiliated Lyndon Johnson and LBJ did the same to Hubert Humphrey, whose protege was Walter Mondale.

So, when Jimmy Carter, who had come from nowhere to clinch the Democratic nomination in 1976 and asked the Minnesota Senator to consider being his running mate, Mondale said he was only interested if his role would be significantly upgraded. After Carter agreed, Humphrey advised Mondale to take the job.

Mondale got an office in the West Wing (“If you’re in the EOB you might as well be in Baltimore,” he told me), a weekly lunch with the president and walk-in privileges in the Oval Office—all unprecedented and all granted as a matter of course to his successors.

But that was just the start. Because Carter lacked the crippling insecurities of so many of his predecessors, he actually upheld his end of the bargain and made Mondale what Carter called his “assistant president.”

“If you get an order from Fritz, it’s as if it’s an order from me,” he told his staff. Knowing that the senior advisors in prior administrations had often undercut the Veep, he let it be known that anyone doing so would be fired.

One of Carter’s first executive orders was to place the vice-president in the military chain of command. Since 1789, the line of authority had extended from the commander-in-chief to the generals and admirals. If the president were incapacitated, military leaders could launch war on their own authority. When Carter signed the EO, Mondale exulted, “Boy did that change the attitude of the DOD!”

There was one moment when the otherwise warm relationship between Carter and Mondale was severely tested. In the summer of 1979, long lines at gas stations and other economic problems convinced Mondale he would be better off politically—more likely to be president someday—if he resigned or at least announced he would leave the ticket in 1980.

Mondale despised Carter’s pollster, Pat Caddell, and at a meeting at Camp David said he thought Caddell’s draft of the so-called “malaise speech” (in which Carter never uttered the word) was “the craziest goddamn thing I’ve ever read.” Caddell remembered shaking like a leaf because the vice president had called him insane.

When things got hot, Carter asked Mondale to take a walk around the grounds of Camp David. The president recorded in his diary that Mondale remained “quite distraught.” But he decided not to resign and told me much later that he thought the malaise speech—while hardly a favorite—had come out better than he feared.

Mondale manned the ramparts when it came to Ted Kennedy who used his modest differences with Carter on health insurance as an excuse to run against the president for the Democratic nomination in 1980. (Kennedy wasn’t for single-payer health care, just a more generous and accelerated version of Carter’s plan.) “Why at this point in American history act in a way that would elect Reagan?” Mondale asked me rhetorically in 2015. “The answer is that he thought Carter was unworthy of being president. That was just plain irresponsible.” Kennedy did run and his challenge to Carter and a churlish concession at the convention surely contributed to Reagan’s win that fall.

I helped cover the 1984 primaries for Newsweek and at that time thought Mondale (the eventual nominee) was a mossback—a stolid paleo-liberal who thought the New Deal should somehow be preserved in amber. I was much more impressed by Gary Hart and his “new ideas.”

I was wrong. Mondale would not only have been a better president than incumbent Ronald Reagan, but he was also—by temperament and experience—the best of the Democrats. Had he been president in the late 1980s, he would have short-circuited Reaganism more than three decades ago.

He lost in a landslide, of course—never really had a chance. He only won his home state of Minnesota. He’d go on to remain a force in public life as Bill Clinton’s deft ambassador to Japan and briefly a replacement for Paul Wellstone who died in a Minnesota airplane crash just weeks before his reelection. Mondale lost that race to the forgettable Republican, Norm Coleman. But at least now we can see clearly that Walter Mondale was close to the beau ideal of the public man: smart, unassuming, and committed to those dealt a bad hand by fate.

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Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.