ack in 1976, Jimmy Carter’s consigliere, Charlie Kirbo, was delegated to vet the president-elect’s choices for the vice presidency. The short list included Senators John Glenn, Walter Mondale, and Joe Biden. But after interviewing Mondale, Kirbo told Carter, “Governor, I thought I could get rid of that fellah, but I didn’t, and I don’t think I will.” Kirbo’s South Georgia political instincts made him a little leery of the Minnesotan’s stark liberal credentials. But he couldn’t resist Mondale’s plain, transparent decency. Neither could Carter.
Carter’s partnership with Mondale became a perfect match of Northern and Southern populism. Both politicians were intelligent, affable, and unpretentious. They liked each other. One November day soon after the 1976 election, Carter and Mondale were about to walk over to the White House to pay a courtesy call on President Gerald Ford when Carter quietly asked Fritz, “What’s it like?”
“What are you talking about?” Mondale asked.
“The White House,” Carter replied.
“You’ve never been in the White House? It’s a pretty nice place. I think you’ll like it.”
A few weeks later, Mondale sat down with Carter to talk about what the president-elect would want from his number two. Mondale’s aide Richard Moe had prepared a memo with an expansive list of vice-presidential duties. Mondale had expected Carter to negotiate point by point. Instead, Carter silently read the nine-page memo, and then, tossing it on his desk, said, “This is fine. But I also want you to be in the White House.”
Carter thought the vice presidency up until then had been a “wasted national asset.” He was determined to change the nature of the office. For the first time, he promised, this vice president would have full access to all classified documents, and Mondale would be allowed to participate in any meeting he wished, whether it was in the Oval Office or elsewhere.
The new arrangement worked. Mondale encouraged Carter’s liberal instincts. When the budget-conscience Carter angered congressional liberals by cutting $5 billion in “pork barrel” water projects to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers, Mondale gently tried to warn him that congressional “pork” was a relative thing: “In a democracy, someone’s waste is another’s personal treasure.” He also countered the advice Carter received from his hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He and Zbig repeatedly clashed over Carter’s insistence that human rights should be a key pillar of foreign policy. On one occasion, Mondale objected that Brzezinski’s formulations “suggest that a major motivation for our espousal of human rights is based on a tactical advantage against the Soviet Union.” For Mondale, human rights wasn’t just a rhetorical tactical weapon against Moscow. Carter agreed.