My wonderful wife got me a ticket to see former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale. He was taking part in a discussion following Professor Joel Goldstein’s book-tour talk about the modern Vice Presidency. The event was hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Center for Public Affairs. The talk was brief. The audience came to hear Mondale’s comments, and we would have stayed for hours.
Goldstein argues that President Jimmy Carter and Mondale created the modern Vice Presidency. Mondale was given access to all materials and information provided to the President. Carter informed the White House staff that a request by Mondale was to be treated as a Presidential request. Unusually, Mondale had an office in the West Wing with unrestricted access to Carter. Mondale was ready to discuss any issue and to relay any information to the President. He was both intermediary and confidante.
Mondale attributed the success of the partnership to compatibility. They both came from small towns, where humility, common sense and “real” (sic) Christianity shaped one’s views and character. A week before Carter chose Mondale, he and his wife Joan visited Jimmy and Roslyn Carter at the farm in Plains, Georgia. Mondale did not know Carter and was not willing to be a spare part. Furthermore, he was enraged and embittered at Lyndon Johnson’s cruel and “despicable” treatment of Hubert Humphrey, his mentor. After Hubert reported negatively on his mission to Vietnam, Johnson excluded him from the brain trust. Thus, Mondale insisted on a meeting to understand Carter's intentions. Mondale returned home from Plains comfortable with the role he would play.
Mondale served as a liaison to the Congress for the Carter administration. Legislators confided in him. They also used him to relay information to Carter, especially when the news was bad.
And there was more than enough bad news. Carter’s term coincided with the 1979 OPEC oil embargo and Iran’s Islamist Revolution. The Shah, an American proxy, was ousted, and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, an exiled cleric, returned to Iran to found its Islamist Republic. Carter spent the last 444 days of his Presidency trying to rescue 52 hostages seized by the Ayatollah’s faithful from the United States Embassy. A covert rescue mission failed, becoming an enormous embarrassment. Carter was a truth-teller. Then, like now, Americans prefer the promise of blue skies to the immediate threat of a storm. Carter was defeated by Reagan decisively in 1980. Reagan later won a landslide victory over Mondale in 1984, the country mesmerized by the Gipper and his mystical Golden City on s Hill. Mondale’s reach for the brass ring was over.
The Carter-Mondale template has been used by both parties. The contemporary Veep is something of a shadow President. Goldstein pointed out that on average, successful tickets have Presidents with fifteen years in government and a Vice President with nearly the same. It is not a co-Presidency, but the Vice President is immersed in the details and issues, which had not been true before 1976. He does more than attend funerals and chair the Senate
The modern Vice Presidency is no longer a vacuum. With two exceptions, all major party nominees from 1980 on have been experienced politicians. The outliers were Dan Quayle, who was relatively young and green, and the other was Sarah Palin. The panel regarded McCain’s choice of Palin as disastrous for the party as well as for McCain’s candidacy. However, they did not attribute McCain’s loss solely to Palin. That honor fell to George Bush and McCain’s aversion to the economy and other domestic issues.
Mr. Mondale’s skin reddened and his voice rose as he addressed his harshest comments. to former Vice-President Dick Cheney. Cheney, he said, used the office to steer the Administration in his own direction, and he kept the nature of his operation separate and a secret and therefore unaccountable. Cheney pushed the administration into the Iraq War, the worst foreign policy decision in the nation’s history.
The speakers refrained from predictions. Goldstein pointed out that successful Presidential candidates have an average of 15 years of prior government service and Veeps slightly less. That means a successful ticket would have about thirty years combined. They agreed that a person with substantial government experience is essential for a Trump ticket, because the candidate’s own experience is zero. No one under consideration has anything close to thirty years of experience, although Newt Gingrich has been hanging around that long. Unfortunately for Trump, Strom Thurmond is not available. They agreed that John Kasich brought the right experience and approach, noting that he, like many others, have declined to run.
Clinton has 15 years of official experience, eight as First Lady and several years as senate staff counsel. Professor Goldstein thought the combined appearance of Clinton and Warren was electrifying. He did not endorse or forecast them as a ticket. He commented that winning the Presidency comes ahead of winning back the Senate. If Sherrod Brown is the right one, he offered, a loss of his Ohio Senate seat is secondary.