WASHINGTON – Walter Mondale was the first vice president to move his office into the White House — a decision that permanently changed the country’s No. 2 job and has reverberations in the current battle for the next president.
Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden on a stage Tuesday, Mondale told an audience of local and national political luminaries gathered to honor him that he didn’t want to be bothered with the “details of government,” but be a daily decisionmaker in the West Wing, helping President Jimmy Carter parse the heaviest issues of the day.
At a dinner, Carter said he needed Mondale’s help when he won because he was “a peanut farmer from Georgia” without the wiles to navigate the nation’s capital.
“I wanted to be a general adviser to the president,” Mondale said. He was worried about losing the independence he had in the U.S. Senate and becoming like other vice presidents who “slowly had their dignity taken from them.”
The daylong event was a high-profile celebration of Mondale, 87, and the issues he cares passionately about. Mondale’s 1984 presidential loss to the popular incumbent Ronald Reagan became the worst political shellacking in the nation’s history, but the mild-mannered Minnesotan emerged from defeat to become a leading voice on social justice issues and a mentor to the next generation of Democratic leaders.
Biden, himself deciding whether to run for president next year, relayed a story of telling President Obama that he wasn’t interested in the vice presidency because he thought he was more valuable in the U.S. Senate.
Obama, Biden said, eventually talked him into it, saying he needed his foreign policy wisdom and experience on Capitol Hill.
“The first person I called was Fritz,” Biden said. “And I said, ‘tell me about the modus operandi that you and Carter worked out.’ ”
“One of the things we worked out earlier in my administration,” Mondale said, “what we agreed to do up front, is that I would not disagree with him [Carter] publicly. But if I really disagreed with him, I would go have it out with him alone, and we did that. Then we’d go out together on something.”
In a sweeping day of tributes to Mondale, former staffers, foreign diplomats, sitting senators (including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken), Biden and Carter showed up to talk about Mondale. They cited the wide range of his achievements, such as fighting the U.S. Navy on behalf of the Vietnamese refugees who fled by boat, working with Carter to appoint more black federal judges, and pushing the government’s spy agencies to be more open.
Most everyone who walked on and off the stage at George Washington University — including Biden and Sen. Patrick Leahy — called Mondale a mentor.
“Mondale had access to every piece of intelligence, access to every meeting. We didn’t think about it as a Mondale/Carter staff,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington attorney and former chief domestic policy adviser to Carter. “It was one staff and it was the most consequential, most positively impactful one-term presidency that we’ve had in modern American history.”
The panel discussions touched on Mondale’s accomplishments in reconciling national security and the Constitution.
Mondale called the CIA’s admission that it hacked into U.S. Senate staffer computers three times between 2010 and 2014 “dangerous.” He applauded California Sen. Dianne Feinstein for disclosing the spy agency’s tactics on the Senate floor. Mondale has criticized Obama for not doing more to punish those who crossed the constitutional line.
Mondale was also critical of former Vice President Dick Cheney, saying he took “things to the dark side” in how he handled national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “He created a vice presidency as a sort of privileged sanctuary. He wouldn’t respond to subpoenas, he stiffed the Congress,” Mondale said. “I think those were bad days in the history of the vice presidency. I have kind of a harsh view of him.”
Perhaps the most touching moment came late in the day when Mondale was joined by Carter, who is fighting cancer.
Carter said he felt good about how he molded his presidency and White House after spending a weekend at Camp David with Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey, who served as a distant vice president to Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
Humphrey “unburdened to me the deprivation that he experienced as vice president and the exclusion of any role,” Carter said. “He was never involved in any serious discussion. He was restricted severely at his ability to go into Congress … It was very embarrassing to him as a human being, and I thought counterproductive.”
Carter joked there were a few instances when Mondale took too much liberty when the two were in office.
“Whenever he saw a chance to go to Norway, I was always excluded,” Carter said, laughing.
Sitting next to Carter, Mondale tipped his head back, closed his eyes and laughed out loud.