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Walter F. Mondale and the Creation of the New Vice Presidency

VP Walter Mondale with President Jimmy Carter, 1979. 

Walter F. Mondale transformed the American vice presidency.  Converting that disparaged position into the true second office of the land was an historic accomplishment that tells a lot about the gifted public servant he was.  Whereas others had failed to make the office consequential, Mondale created a new vision of the vice presidency and demonstrated that it could be a force for good.  He reinvented the office, not as an end in itself, but to allow government to better promote the general welfare and foster a more just society and more peaceful world.

The vice presidency had moved into the executive beginning in the 1950s but it was experiencing troubled times when Jimmy Carter and Mondale were elected in November 1976.  President Lyndon B. Johnson had abused Hubert H. Humphrey, Spiro T. Agnew had resigned in disgrace, Gerald R. Ford had spent nine unhappy vice-presidential months as far from Richard M. Nixon and Watergate as he could get, and Ford’s well-intentioned promise to give Nelson A. Rockefeller a significant role did not work and he dumped the vice president from the 1976 ticket.  And that was all in a decade!  By the mid-1970s, presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. judged the vice presidency fatally flawed and favored abolishing it

Carter and Mondale had a different idea.  Carter knew he needed help and thought Mondale could provide it.  But Carter lacked a blueprint to make the vice presidency functional, and Rockefeller’s unhappy experience demonstrated that presidential intentions and hopes alone wouldn’t elevate the second office without a sensible vision appropriately resourced and well-implemented.

Mondale provided the vision which he conceived by looking at the office in a novel way.   Whereas past vice presidents had tried to structure a role to empower themselves and position themselves as presidents-in-waiting, Mondale asked instead how he could help Carter succeed. Whereas prior vice presidents thought power would come from managing some government programs, Mondale rejected that approach.  He concluded that the vice president could contribute by being a general adviser to the president and by handling special presidential assignments.

Mondale’s insight reflected his faith that the presidency could promote positive change but his belief that presidents needed help, which a properly-equipped vice president could uniquely provide.   Mondale thought recent presidents often lacked good and candid advice.  Other officials had departmental biases which skewed their perspective and people tended to avoid giving presidents advice they didn’t want to hear.  Mondale believed a vice president, as a senior political leader who shared the president’s interests and could consider the full range of problems that came to the Oval Office, was positioned to give the president unique and critical perspectives.  And he suggested that the vice president’s stature could enable him to discharge high-level presidential assignments.

Carter welcomed Mondale’s vision and gave him the access, information, and support to succeed.  He brought Mondale into the West Wing and his inner circle, invited him to any meeting on his schedule, saw him privately whenever Mondale wanted, gave Mondale all briefing papers Carter got, and insisted that administration officials treat Mondale as they would Carter.

Prior vice presidents had echoed John Adams’ complaint that they could do neither good nor evil, but Mondale did a lot of good.  He became Carter’s most important general adviser and gave him critical advice during their private meetings.  Mondale helped secure ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and create the Department of Education, fought to fund social programs, and worked with Carter to produce the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.  Carter sent him on major diplomatic missions, including a highly successful trip to China to help normalize relations.

Yet more than any other initiative, Mondale’s work rescuing the Southeast Asia refugees demonstrated the capacity of the vice presidency to align American performance with its high ideals. Mondale persuaded Carter to allow him to work on the problem before it had attracted much attention.  With Carter’s support, Mondale motivated the State department to denounce mistreatment of these refugees and got the Pentagon to dispatch the Sixth Fleet to rescue boat people facing perilous seas.  He persuaded Carter to seek more funding for refugee resettlement and to increase those the United States would accept. 

Mondale took those demonstrations of American resolve to Geneva where he headed America’s delegation to a U.N. Conference on Indochinese refugees.  After spending the first day lobbying other nations, Mondale gave one of the most stirring speeches in vice-presidential history.  He likened the situation to that the world faced in 1938 when nations failed to intervene to save Jews from the Nazis.  Mondale proposed a seven-point international response and implored the world to act.  “Let us do something meaningful — something profound — to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.  History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.” America’s leadership and Mondale’s speech persuaded other nations to join in addressing the humanitarian crisis.

After Carter and Mondale lost their re-election bid in 1980 to former Governor Ronald Reagan and former Ambassador George H.W. Bush, Mondale and his team proceeded to educate the incoming administration on their reinvention of the vice presidency.  Neither disappointment over the defeat nor the likelihood that Mondale would run in 1984 against Reagan (or, considering Reagan’s age, Bush), deterred Mondale from sharing the ins and outs of the new vice-presidential model.  Mondale saw Reagan and Bush as America’s new leaders, not his partisan rivals.  On their inauguration day, Bush said he hoped to imitate Mondale’s vice-presidential model.

Carter and Mondale demonstrated that the vice presidency was important not because the vice president might become president but because he or she could do good as vice president.  The model Carter and Mondale created of a “White House vice president” has largely defined the role of Mondale’s seven successors, three Democrats and four Republicans.  That’s not to say they have matched Mondale’s contributions to, or in, the office.  Those reflected the ideals, skill and character of a historic public servant and a special human being.

copyright Joel K. Goldstein, 2021