Goldstein on Mondale: “Truly consequential”

The death of Walter F. Mondale on April 19, 2021, brought an outpouring of tributes recognizing that the United States had lost an exceptional public servant and exemplary person. I shared that sentiment but for me, he was also the hero of my book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016). I never would have written that book had Mondale not become vice president and much of it focused on his work in the historic undertaking to make the vice presidency truly consequential, work often performed in tandem with his partner in the undertaking, Jimmy Carter. Four chapters were devoted entirely to their work as were parts of six of the remaining 12 chapters.

My earlier book on the vice presidency, The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (1982), written primarily during the late 1970s, had focused on the office during the quarter-century between the vice presidencies of Richard M. Nixon (1953-61) and Mondale (1977-81). It had traced the office’s dramatic move into the executive branch during Nixon’s vice presidency and the consolidation of that development to sweeping changes in American life and government that began with the New Deal and World War II. The book noted Mondale’s greatly enhanced role as a presidential adviser and recommended the Mondale model vice presidency but was written long before internal documents and other important information about Mondale’s term became available or before it became clear whether the new arrangements would continue after Carter and Mondale left office.

Yet by the early 21st century, if not before, it became clear that the vice presidencies that followed Mondale’s—those of George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden—resembled Mondale’s tenure much more than those of Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey, Spiro T. Agnew, Gerald Ford or Nelson A. Rockefeller. Clearly, Mondale’s vice presidency had initiated an entirely new period for the office rather than being part of the Nixon era executive branch vice presidency.  Mondale’s recent predecessors had migrated to the executive branch but they spent little time in the West Wing. Yet that’s where Mondale and his successors operated.  Vice presidents from Nixon to Rockefeller often performed peripheral matters and rarely saw the president but Mondale and later vice presidents were in the president’s inner circle. They handled assignments that mattered and spent more hours with the president in a day than their predecessors had in a month. And the changes weren’t limited to time in office but extended to the selection and campaign roles. Beginning with Mondale, vice presidents were vetted extensively before selection, they participated in vice-presidential debates, and pre-convention rollouts soon became the norm, an innovation Mondale began in 1984 when he announced his historic selection of Representative Geraldine Ferraro before the convention.

The White House Vice Presidency began as an effort to describe the office that Mondale and his successors held and to understand how it had become a fixture in the inner sanctum of the West Wing. That investigation kept returning me to Mondale. Carter and Mondale had created the Mondale model vice presidency and the supporting practices and institutions which other administrations had then adopted.

Yet that statement, that Carter and Mondale created the new vice presidency, is misleading since its very simplicity diminishes the difficulty and magnitude of their accomplishment. It was a very big deal!  The unprecedented arrangement required a complicated sequence of steps and created a new model that endured long after they left office. Carter and Mondale needed to reach a mutual commitment that an engaged and empowered vice presidency was in their interests and made sense, to understand the office, its failures and frustrations to create a new vision, to identify and provide the resources to give the new vision a chance to function and to implement it faithfully amidst the stresses of governing to confirm that what seemed good in theory could work in practice. And even if they successfully accomplished each step, their creation would extend beyond their terms in office only if they transmitted the model to their successors and demonstrated its merit and feasibility.

My research led me to appreciate the complexity of their achievement, the necessary steps that were hidden from public view. Mondale had undertaken an intensive study of the vice presidency to understand its vulnerabilities and recurring failures and to identify ways in which it could enhance American government. That study led him to think about the office in a novel way—not principally as a president in waiting but as a senior, elected official committed to helping the president succeed now.  The new perspective on the office accompanied a new vision of the vice-presidential role. Rather than accumulating vice-presidential portfolios, Mondale concluded that the vice president should function as a senior, across-the-board presidential adviser and troubleshooter for high-level assignments. Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Aaron Burr memorably sung of the allure of being in “The Room Where it Happens,” Mondale appreciated lessons implicit in that wonderful song as the secret to a consequential vice-presidency. Mondale recognized that being in the room with Carter would allow him to offer Carter uniquely useful advice—the candid counsel of a fellow elected public servant with a similar perspective and shared political destiny—and would enhance his ability to undertake presidential assignments. Mondale understood that the new vice-presidential vision of a general adviser and troubleshooter wouldn’t just happen. It required new vice-presidential resources—access to the president and the information he got and presidential support. Carter, anxious to have Mondale’s help, gave Mondale every resource he requested and demonstrated his commitment to the project by adding others. Mondale implemented the new vision for four years, giving Carter candid advice and handling high-level assignments skillfully. And then, after Carter and Mondale lost their re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan and Bush, Mondale and his aides schooled Bush and his associates on how to be a successful vice president even though Mondale knew that he would be embarking on a presidential campaign in 1984 which would likely match him against Reagan and/or Bush.

The innovations that Carter and Mondale put in place regarding the White House vice presidency, and the selection, rollout, and campaign roles of vice-presidential candidates have been institutionalized since then. To be sure, those features have been tweaked and updated and different vice presidents have done things a bit differently. But the vision, resources, and institutions Carter and Mondale put in place have survived on a bipartisan basis during the succeeding presidential administrations. They created the office Vice President Kamala Harris now holds.

The White House Vice Presidency thus became not simply a book about the vice presidency as it now exists. It also became a study of an important type of constitutional change, a consideration of how enduring institutional change can occur through the repetition of practices until they become established norms.

What triggered this constitutional change was political leadership, principally the commitment, imagination, planning, and performance of Carter and Mondale in finding a way to recreate America’s most problematic governmental institution into a position of lasting consequence. They were the leaders who made the change happen. Writing the book left me with an appreciation of Mondale’s deep understanding of American constitutional government and political behavior, his creativity in reformulating the vice presidency into a consequential and productive institution of government, and his skill and character in discharging his public trust. I hope the book conveys that picture of the leadership and character of this remarkable public servant and person.

Joel K. Goldstein is the the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.