Opinion: How Walter Mondale revolutionized the vice presidency

Walter Mondale, who died Monday at age 93, was both an adviser and a loyal lieutenant to Jimmy Carter during his presidency and a role model to every vice president who followed him. Biden and Obama met after Mondale sent Biden the formal agreement made with Carter. Biden had wanted to get a good look at it first.

The deal included Mondale’s three major requirements: unimpeded access to the president; the same access to classified material as the president; and unrestricted institutional responsibilities. He also wanted a West Wing office, which he got. (It should be noted that the office is just 17 steps from the Oval, next to the chief of staff’s.) And he insisted on a weekly lunch with the president, a tradition that is still in place. Central to Mondale’s success: Taking on the role of general adviser and not requesting specific assignments.

Though Mondale never got his wish to be president, Biden knew that he had revolutionized the vice presidency and represented the gold standard for every future vice president.

For my 2018 book about the vice presidency I interviewed every former vice president. Each of them, from Al Gore to Dick Cheney, rhapsodized about the partnership between Carter and Mondale. That is because Mondale made the vice presidency — an oft-maligned position — into an actual job. Before he agreed to Carter’s offer to be his running mate in 1976, Mondale penned that document formalizing his approach to their relationship. Carter signed off on it with no amendments and no deletions.

Mondale, who had served in the Senate, told Carter, “I believe the most important contribution I can make is to serve as a general adviser to you. The biggest single problem of our recent administrations has been the failure of the president to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or often what others want him to hear.”

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Carter obliged. “I could trust him to give me candid advice on a variety of subjects, but once a policy decision was made I could also trust that he would represent my decision accurately and with enthusiasm,” Carter told me when I interviewed him for “First in Line.” “I think the key thing is for a vice president to feel that his advice is heeded and that he has unfettered access to give it.”

Christine Limerick, who worked in the White House from 1979 to 2008 as the head housekeeper, said the vice president she saw most often in the private second-floor residence at the White House was Mondale, whom she also saw in the residence with his wife, Joan, several times having dinner with the Carters.

The effectiveness of any vice president depends on his relationship with the president. Carter described their years together in the White House as a “family environment.” “I think the genius of this and the reason for its success was Carter’s commitment,” Mondale told me. Said Carter: “We both had seen how poorly some vice presidents had been treated and underutilized in the past and both felt it was a waste of talent.”

Vice presidents need to have complete access, Carter argued, pointing to the danger of Harry Truman being kept in the dark by FDR about the atomic bomb.
The media took to calling Carter, the former governor of Georgia, and his liberal Minnesota running mate “Fritz and Grits.” (Fritz was Mondale’s nickname.)
During the 1992 presidential campaign Al Gore’s former Harvard professor, the political scientist Richard E. Neustadt, sent him reminders about the potential land mines surrounding the vice presidency: “The White House staff lives in the present,” he wrote, “the VP’s staff in the future.”
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In the modern era, Dick Cheney is the only vice president who had no presidential ambitions because he had abandoned them years earlier. Vice presidents and their advisers insist their primary job is to advance the president’s agenda, and not their own. But always, in the back of their minds, the vice president is considering how the president’s policies will affect him and his own chances of one day being elected president.

“I can’t say I was never thinking about my own political career,” Mondale confessed, “but I believe I made an honest commitment that I would put his presidency above all other considerations and I believe I did do that.”

After they were elected, Carter gathered his West Wing staff and his Cabinet together and made one thing clear: disrespecting his vice president was the surest way to get fired. “I want you to respond to a request from the vice president as if it came from me,” he told them. “If I hear any of you mucking around with the vice president, undercutting him, you’re outta here.”

Mondale may have been loyal to a fault. In 1980 Carter and Mondale lost their reelection bid after one term in office. Four years later, Mondale became the first presidential candidate to name a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate. But they lost against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in a landslide.

Mondale’s campaign chairman, Joe Trippi, told me that no matter how many times he told Mondale that he needed to distance himself from Carter, the former vice president would not do it.

“Mondale was very respectful about keeping the confidence of those conversations with Carter private,” Trippi recalled. “Even when it was in his best interest as a candidate to divulge when he privately disagreed with the president, it was not in his character to throw Carter under the bus for his own political gain.”

Jerry Rafshoon, who was Carter’s communications director, looked at their relationship with a degree of awe. “They were both loyal to each other, we knew if we badmouthed Fritz, we were gone.”

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