Back 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.
They had their differences as well. In the late spring of 1979, millions of Americans were having to wait in line to fuel their cars. An energy crisis exacerbated by the Iranian revolution also stoked simultaneous inflation and unemployment. The country seemed demoralized. White House pollster Patrick Caddell urged Carter to address the nation about the need to recognize material limits. America, he argued, needed to be less narcissistic. Mondale reacted angrily to Caddell’s “sophomoric” advice and angrily called it a “bunch of crap” and “crazy.”
Mondale retreated to Minnesota’s northern wilderness lake country, where he seriously contemplated resignation. After a week in the woods alone, he calmed down and decided he could not abandon Carter. But he bluntly told the president, “We got elected on the ground that we wanted a government as good as the American people; now as I hear it, we want to tell them we need a people as good as the government; I don’t think that is going to sell.”
Carter nevertheless hosted an extraordinary domestic policy summit at Camp David for 10 days and then emerged to give a speech in which he talked bluntly about “what’s wrong with America.” The pundits quickly dubbed it the “malaise” speech: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption…. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” He seemed to take issue with the whole notion of American exceptionalism, observing, “We were taught that our armies were always invincible, and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam.” He railed against well-paid lobbyists and “powerful special interests.” Congress, he warned, was paralyzed by false claims, evasiveness, and “every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.”
It’s easy to forget now that, initially, Carter’s sermon was well received. His poll numbers shot up—until days later, when he suddenly fired five cabinet secretaries. The Carter presidency never really recovered from this political fiasco. Mondale’s political instincts had been on the mark.
Their disagreement, however, did not sully Mondale’s relationship with Carter. The two men remained close. When they lost the November 1980 election—in large part because of the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis—Mondale told Carter, “We obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we kept the peace.” Carter added, “We championed human rights.”
They remained trusting friends until Mondale’s passing last week at the age of 93. And the office of the vice presidency has never been same. Carter and Mondale made it a real job. Every vice president since Mondale has had a desk down the hall from the Oval Office. Democrats probably regretted the elevation of the vice presidency only once, when George W. Bush made Dick Cheney an über vice president. But that just underscores the importance of personal character. Mondale, like his Georgian boss, personified the value of plain decency. And that will be his historical legacy.