Walter “Fritz” Mondale, who died today at 93, changed what it means to be Vice President – that is the story of my dissertation – and I was fortunate to interview Mondale about it. This may be his most notable legacy, but in his long public life, he did a great many good things.
Carter made him a partner and sought his counsel across the board. Carter fully incorporated the VP into the White House process, including access to all White House meetings for the VP and (at lower levels) the VP’s staff. Carter had the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief delivered to the Mondale. They also established the weekly private lunch and, perhaps most importantly, Carter gave Mondale an office just steps away in the West Wing.
President Carter and Vice President Mondale established a new model for relations between our two highest offices. It is a relationship that has continued, and expanded, to the present. Vice President Harris, at the side of President Biden and a key source of advice for him, is the latest beneficiary of this change.
I can discuss this in excruciating detail, but not here and not now. Let’s talk about bigger things.
In another way, Harris benefits from her predecessor’s legacy. Mondale’s ill-fated 1984 run for the presidency as the Democratic Party nominee was not a memorable campaign. In fairness, there may not have been a politician in the country who stood a chance against the popular and telegenic Reagan. But Mondale did make a historic decision, naming Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman on a major party ticket.
I study institutions, and institutions are important. But the legacy of Vice President Mondale is far more. Mondale, following in the footsteps of his mentor Hubert Humphrey, entered politics to help people, and that is his greatest legacy.
Civil Rights Champion
As Attorney General of Minnesota he championed the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, organizing the attorneys general of 23 states to join in supporting Gideon’s case before the Supreme Court contending that impoverished defendants should receive free legal counsel. As a young Senator he took on the fair housing issue, which was seen as one item too many on the expansive civil rights agenda of the late 1960s. Mondale, a master of the legislative process, got it through. He continued to champion social welfare legislation, investigated the FBI and CIA after their excesses of the Sixties and Seventies, and helped to establish the FISA Court. In a reminder that there is nothing new under the sun, Mondale fought to reform the filibuster.
With his success in the Senate, as the 1976 presidential election campaign approached, he was skeptical of his possible role as vice president. He knew he would be on the short-list of the prospective nominee Jimmy Carter. He met with his mentor Hubert Humphrey, who had been Johnson’s vice president. Johnson had been terrible to Humphrey, browbeating him in the Oval Office, and giving him embarrassing busy work. But Humphrey told him, “Fritz, you must do this. You’ll get more done down there in two days than you will up here in two years.”
And he did.
The Consequential Vice President
Mondale had important policy influence across a full range of domestic and international policies in the Carter White House. Carter, the first modern outsider president, did not know how Washington worked, and by inclination sought ideal solutions and considered an afterthought. Time and again Mondale, who National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called “an invaluable political barometer,” provided tactical and political advice to make Carter’s vision reality – or at least keep the administration out of trouble. But Mondale also did or helped do some big things.
The signature foreign policy achievement of the Carter administration was brokering peace between Egypt and Israel. Carter deserves credit for this, it was his vision and will that kept the process moving forward when obstacles threatened. Mondale himself was the first to admit this, as he told me when I interviewed him. Yet, Mondale provided an essential assist. Carter was an unknown to the Israelis and the American Jewish community. In private conversations, Mondale forged a relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that overcame some of this skepticism about Carter.
With limited experience in foreign affairs or DC, Carter would make statements that made the Israelis nervous, worried that Carter would undermine their security. Mondale was able to reassure them, and to get Carter to moderate his message.
Perhaps the strongest sign of Mondale’s importance was that when the Camp David summit began, Mondale was to remain in Washington as Carter’s stand-in. After a few days, Carter had Mondale join him. At times, only Mondale could connect with the Israeli delegation.
Carter had hoped to bring peace to the Middle East. This, alas, has yet to arrive. The end of war between two adversaries is no small thing, and Mondale’s role was critical.
In his autobiography, Mondale writes that in early 1979 the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, Richard Holbrooke, contacted him about the growing refugee crisis in southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of people were being expelled by the Communist governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. They were fleeing on flimsy rafts often drowned or were preyed upon by pirates. Holbrooke couldn’t get anyone in the government to do anything about it.
Mondale, after securing Carter’s backing, pressed the Navy to begin conducting rescue operations. Carter then agreed to double the U.S. intake of refugees. The Senate called for the UN to hold an international summit on the crisis. Carter, at the last minute, chose not to go and sent Mondale in his place. At the summit in Geneva, Mondale delivered the speech of his life. He galvanized the global community into action and nations around the world provided resources and more than doubled their commitment to take in the refugees.
When we met, Mondale mentioned with pride of the Vietnamese community in the Twin Cities, which has its roots in his initiative.
My favorite novelist Robertson Davies writes: The result of a single action may spread like circles that expand when a stone is thrown into a pond, until they touch places and people unguessed at by the person who threw the stone.
A successful politician like Walter Mondale inhabits a bigger stage, is able to touch more lives, than most of us – to throw more stones and farther. Across his career, Mondale reshaped the lives of many: people who did not go to prison because they had legal representation, families that prospered because of fair housing, young men who weren’t killed in the Sinai desert, and tens of thousands of refugees who were able to start new prosperous lives.
Mondale changed the vice presidency, but – in ways no one had before – he used the vice presidency to make change.
I’ve long written about and studied Walter Mondale with my head. This is written from the heart.