Contributed by Joel Goldstein, author of The White House Vice Presidency
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the White House vice presidency, the most significant recent development in American constitutional institutions and an important legacy of the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the vice presidency of Walter F. Mondale. There were many significant 1976 events along the road to transforming the vice presidency into a consequential, ongoing part of the presidency including the Carter-Mondale interview in Plains, Ga. on July 8, the Mondale selection on July 15, and the first vice-presidential debate on October 15. Yet perhaps no single event captures their creation more than Mondale’s 11-page memo to Carter, “The Role of the Vice President in the Carter Administration” , dated 40 years ago December 9.
During the last 40 years, vice-presidential influence and constructive activity have become an expectation of our constitutional system. That was certainly not the case on December 9, 1976. Indeed, Mondale’s memo began by noting that finding a role for the vice presidency had been a perennial “problem,” that vice presidential role had been “characterized by ambiguity, disappointment, and even antagonism” and that the eminent presidential historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. had described the job as one of “spectacular and …incurable frustration.” Nelson A. Rockefeller ‘s term began amidst high expectations of vice-presidential involvement, but soon Rockefeller was at odds with President Gerald R. Ford’s chiefs of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and was dumped from the 1976 ticket. Less than a decade before Rockefeller’s failed vice presidency, President Lyndon B. Johnson had marginalized and humiliated Mondale’s political friend, Hubert H. Humphrey. The inability of men like Humphrey and Rockefeller to contribute as vice president reinforced the fatalism of Schlesinger and others about the office.
Mondale’s December 9 memorandum culminated a lengthy period of study and thought. Humphrey had encouraged him to be open to the vice presidency during a spring meeting arranged by Mondale’s Senate chief of staff, Richard Moe. Mondale began to study the vice presidency before he met with Carter on July 8. During their meeting, Mondale and Carter were on the same page regarding elevating the second office without getting too specific. After Carter chose him, Mondale asked his former legislative assistant, Robert Barnett, to prepare a study of the office. Barnett’s 38-page report surveyed problems of past vice presidents and made recommendations that helped shape the White House vice presidency. Barnett’s insightful study discussed the importance of the president-vice president relationship and the threats to it and presciently emphasized the possibility of making a meaningful contribution as a “Super Advisor.” After Carter and Mondale were elected, Mondale met with Rockefeller and former Humphrey staff members in addition to ongoing discussions with his associates including his principal aides Moe, Michael Berman and James Johnson. After Carter, Mondale and Moe met to discuss Mondale’s role, Carter requested a memorandum which Mondale asked Moe to prepare.
Mondale and his associates understood the difficulties of past vice presidents but they were problem solvers, not pessimists. Mondale had several advantages. Carter genuinely wanted to empower his vice president. Carter and Mondale and their staffs had worked well during the campaign. Mondale had contributed to the Democrats’ victory and had important skills and relationships which could help Carter govern. Barnett’s study and the months of discussion suggested a new path forward. The mission of the December 9 memo was to propose a workable vice-presidential vision and the resources to support it.
Mondale’s December 9 memo rested on the premises that the vice president should contribute to government on an ongoing basis, not primarily serve as a presidential successor; that the vice president’s contribution should occur in the executive branch; and that the relevant challenge was to identify a role for the vice president that would contribute to government and the presidency, not enhance the vice president’s power or pleasure.
Consistent with Barnett’s study, Mondale concluded that “the most important contribution” he could make was as a “general adviser” to Carter. As the only other nationally elected officer, and one who was not bound by departmental obligations but was “able to look at the government as a whole,” Mondale was “in a unique position to advise.” Mondale’s political and governmental experience, his “political role around the country,” and his “established relationships” could help connect policy and politics. He could help make sure Carter was exposed to diverse points of view and not insulated from bad news as had some prior presidents. Mondale could also take on troubleshooting assignments for Carter such as traveling abroad, investigating problems, refereeing interdepartmental disputes, and working with Congress on major initiatives. Mondale’s approach differed from prior vice presidents who had sought areas or programs to run, a course Mondale et al concluded was a path to failure.
To succeed in these roles, Mondale told Carter he would need regular private access to Carter, inclusion in key groups, intelligence briefings and other information, associates in important roles, and a relationship for him and his staff with the White House staff.
Carter agreed to Mondale’s vice-presidential vision and the resources he identified. In fact, Carter went beyond the requests in the December 9 memo. He invited Mondale to all meetings on his schedule, directed that Mondale receive the same briefing papers Carter got, gave Mondale a choice West Wing office, and insisted that White House staff respond positively to Mondale’s requests.
The December 9 memo provided the blueprint for Mondale’s vice presidency. Its basic ideas were passed forward to subsequent administrations. In fact, Al Gore’s chief of staff, Roy Neel, later obtained a copy and used it as a starting point for Gore’s arrangement with Bill Clinton. The last six vice presidencies have differed in emphasis and influence but all have functioned as White House vice presidents consistent with the December 9, 1976 blueprint.
In addition to providing the basis for the White House vice presidency, the December 9, 1976 memo, and the events preceding and following it, provide a wonderful case study about the way in which thoughtful and knowledgeable public servants can make positive and lasting changes in governmental institutions. That’s something to study and celebrate this, and every, December 9.