Walter Mondale invented the consequential, modern vice presidency, but no one ever would have thought to call a movie about his political career “Vice.”
That label simply wouldn’t have fit the virtuous Minnesotan who served as our 42nd and most creative vice president two decades before Dick Cheney became the most powerful holder of the second office, at least for a while, and was given the first word of its title by detractors as a nickname.
With Mondale’s 91st birthday last weekend and with “Vice” in the theaters, it’s worth reflecting on the respective public services of these two vice presidents for the contrasting values and approaches to democratic governance they represent.
The careers of Mondale and Cheney overlapped. After Mondale contributed to Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory against President Gerald Ford, Cheney — Ford’s chief of staff — was among those out of work. In designing the new vice presidency, Mondale learned from the failed service of his predecessor, Nelson Rockefeller, who was frustrated by Cheney’s efforts. The presidency escaped Mondale in 1984 and Cheney in 1996, but the latter later saw the new vice presidency, the office Mondale had created, as an institution where he could exercise influence.
If their careers intersected principally in their service as vice president, they diverged, quite sharply, in their competing visions of public service and the manner in which they discharged their duties.
Mondale saw public service as a calling that provided opportunity to help vulnerable populations. As a young Minnesota attorney general, he helped persuade colleagues and the U.S. Supreme Court that indigent defendants in felony cases had a constitutional right to be provided counsel. As a senator, he fought to protect minorities and children living in poverty. Mondale was the first presidential candidate to select a woman as his running mate when he designated U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, and he chose her after a search that considered several women, African-American and Hispanic candidates when few in those demographic groups held high office. Considering so many unconventional candidates was unprecedented and subjected Mondale to criticism, but he was a pluralist committed to opening doors.
Cheney, by contrast, opposed creating the Department of Education (which Mondale championed), initially opposed honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday, and voted to sustain President Ronald Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against South Africa due to apartheid nine years after Mondale had told South Africa’s leader that his country’s relations with America depended on abandoning that racist policy.
Mondale was in the forefront in the 1970s of efforts to curb the abuses of American intelligence agencies by subjecting them to tighter legal restraints. He believed power must be accountable and used that concept as a book title. Cheney embraced a robust presidency whose constitutional power allowed it to resist such restraining measures.
Mondale thought that an engaged vice president could help the president by offering candid advice, and he figured out how to design, resource and implement such an institution, notwithstanding the office’s dismal history. Sometimes Mondale persuaded Carter, for instance, to support affirmative action and to rescue Asian boat people and refugees; on other occasions, Carter followed a different path than Mondale counseled. Mondale never forgot that Carter was president and kept Carter advised of his activities. Cheney was also influential, but sometimes he operated without presidential direction, as, for instance, in spring 2004, when Bush was unaware until the 11th hour that Cheney’s push to reauthorize the warrantless surveillance program had encountered such opposition that leaders of the Justice Department were prepared to resign.
Mondale believed that our democratic system obliged public officials continuously to explain and justify policy to the people. He thought a vice president must be politically engaged to help make exercise of power democratically accountable. Cheney, by contrast, argued that his lack of political ambition was desirable, minimized the educational portion of his job and brushed aside as irrelevant the widespread opposition to the Iraq war.
In praising the Carter administration as it ended, Mondale revealed some values most important to him. “We told the truth, we observed the law, we kept the peace,” he said. Cheney, as “Vice” depicts, was a leading proponent of the disastrous war against Iraq based on statements that proved untrue and of the war on terror policies that many viewed as illegal.
In addition to his values and public service, what has made Mondale so special are his personal qualities. A former Hubert Humphrey aide who had known Mondale since he was a student told me that a lifetime’s success had not changed him. In 2007, I saw Mondale at a symposium at the University of Georgia to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Carter’s inauguration. During breaks, Mondale could often be spotted speaking informally to students even as other Carter alumni and academics networked with one another.
That image sticks in my mind, of a decent, virtuous and unassuming man, a former senator, vice president and ambassador, cheerfully sharing with anonymous members of the next generation rather than hobnobbing with the famous from the last, inspiring others to continue the good fights that have characterized his life as a public servant and citizen.
Joel Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at St. Louis University, is the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”