The vice presidency is often the butt of jokes, an office Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, likened to "being naked in the middle of a blizzard with no one to even offer you a match to keep you warm." That cannot be said of the vice presidency of Walter Mondale, one of the most influential figures in the Carter White House and one of the strongest vice presidents in American history.
Born in Ceylon, Minnesota, in 1928, Mondale grew up admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt and aspired to a political career from an early age. The son of a Norwegian Methodist minister, the football and track star known as "Crazy Legs" attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where in 1946 he was impressed by the fiery young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey. After his father died, Mondale left college and followed Humphrey to Washington, where he became national secretary of the Students for Democratic Action, an offshoot of Humphrey's liberal group, the Americans for Democratic Action. In 1950 he returned home to finish college, and after serving two years stateside in the army during the Korean conflict, earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota. Along the way he met and married Joan Adams, also a child of a minister, and began building a family and a law practice.
Politics was never far from his mind, and in 1959, as he was preparing to run for the state senate, Mondale was appointed state attorney general by Governor Orville Freeman, whom he had helped elect. He won several high profile cases and was elected in 1962, but when Humphrey vacated his Senate seat to become Lyndon Johnson's vice president in 1964, Governor Karl Rolvaag appointed Mondale to fill his seat. As one historian described it, "being admired, trusted, and promoted by other politicians" represents a familiar pattern in his career.
It was an auspicious time to be a liberal Democrat, and Senator Mondale eagerly helped President Lyndon Johnson build the Great Society. But after supporting Johnson on the war in Vietnam, Mondale -- like many Democrats -- grew disillusioned and worked to pressure President Richard Nixon to withdraw. In 1973 he co-sponsored the War Powers Resolution, which reasserted much of the power Congress had ceded to the White House in foreign policy. In the midst of the Watergate scandal, Mondale (who had won re-election in 1966 and 1972) began preparing a run for president. But his effort never got off the ground, and he found he had no stomach for the endless travel and single-minded ambition it took to get elected.
On the Ticket
One man who had no such qualms was Jimmy Carter, the one-term governor from Georgia who outworked a field of better-known Democrats to win the party's 1976 nomination. When Carter summoned vice-presidential hopefuls to Plains for interviews before the convention, Mondale was considered a long shot. But the two men (and their wives) hit it off, and Mondale's preparation, likable personality, and ties to the party establishment led Carter to choose the liberal Senator from Minnesota as his running mate. The decision paid off, as Mondale delivered persuasive attacks on Republican policies, reassured liberal Democrats, and scored a decisive victory over Republican counterpart Bob Dole in the first ever vice-presidential debate. Many analysts credit Mondale with giving Carter the margin he needed in one of the closest presidential elections in history.
An Active Vice President
Part of Mondale's price for accepting the second spot was that he would be more than the figurehead most vice presidents had been, and Carter made good on that promise. Rather than being shunted off on marginal policy issues or attending endless ceremonial functions, the vice president was a part of the White House's everyday decision-making. He had an office in the West Wing and his staff was integrated with Carter's; he received the same daily intelligence briefings and shared weekly lunches alone with the president. Even Hamilton Jordan, known to jealously guard access to Carter, once said, "I consider I work for Mondale. He's my second boss, the way Carter is my first boss." The arrangement worked because Mondale, knowing he had private influence with the president, was careful to defer to his boss in public, and despite frequent internal disagreements, remained scrupulously loyal.
One of Mondale's main responsibilities was maintaining the fragile relationship between the Carter White House and Democratic leadership in Congress. Though never easy, the alliance did produce several notable achievements, including the passage of a national energy policy and the controversial Panama Canal treaties. He also used his influence to move Carter on specific issues, such as convincing him to veto authorization for a new $2 billion aircraft carrier, a risky move that paid off when the veto was upheld. But by the summer of 1979, Mondale was worn out by playing peacemaker between members of his own party. When Carter decided to address the crisis of confidence in America rather than the gas crisis directly, Mondale disagreed so strongly he thought of resigning. "I thought it would destroy Carter and me with him," Mondale later said, and events proved his concerns justified.
The Re-election Campaign
In the 1980 campaign, Mondale played an even larger role than he had four years before. The hostage crisis in Iran had made the president a virtual hostage in the White House, leaving the vice president and first lady to do most of the campaigning. Carter survived a challenge by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in the primaries, but this civil war had left the party deeply divided. Mondale faced a tough assignment in uniting party liberals behind the incumbent. In the end, Carter received only tepid support from labor, women, and other groups, spelling disaster against Ronald Reagan, who had no such trouble with his conservative base.
With a humiliated Carter back in Plains and out of politics, Walter Mondale became the titular leader of the Democratic party. Though he returned home to private practice in 1981, Mondale worked toward a presidential run in 1984 by beefing up his foreign policy resume and campaigning for Democrats across the country. He won the nomination on the strength of his unquestioned credentials and strong ties to labor, and even made history by naming New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman on a national ticket. But he lacked the charisma of rivals like Senator Gary Hart or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and he ran into a buzz-saw in Ronald Reagan, who had weathered a recession in 1982 and was taking full credit for the current economic boom. "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I," said Mondale, critical of the ballooning federal budget deficits under Reagan. "He won't tell you, I just did." Mondale was rewarded for his honesty with a landslide defeat in November, in which he carried only Minnesota and the District of Columbia. "Reagan was promising them 'morning in America,' and I was promising a root canal," was his candid assessment of the election.
Mondale returned to private practice in Minnesota, passing up a chance to regain his Senate seat in 1990. But when Democrat Bill Clinton won the White House two years later, Mondale and his wife gladly accepted an ambassadorship to Japan. After being sworn in by Vice President Al Gore, who praised his predecessor, Mondale responded, "Nothing could be more ennobling than to be sworn in by a Democratic vice president."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?