After two leading academic institutions held celebrations of Walter F. Mondale's public service on October 20, 2015, most headlines summarizing the events highlighted Mondale's historic role in remaking the American vice presidency.
I'm all for celebrating the importance of the modern vice presidency and Mondale's essential role in making that happen, a topic I've written about including in a book coming out this winter focused on that very point.
But as historic and as beneficial as was Mondale's role in elevating the vice presidency, that accomplishment was an application of Mondale's leadership, beliefs and skill, and a vehicle for Mondale to advance some of his values, not the measure of the man or his "Living Legacy" as many headlines implied.
Mondale's work in recreating the vice presidency was consistent with his belief that government can and must be a force for good and that public officials should work to improve the Framers' design not disrupt it. Whereas Ronald Reagan declared at his first inauguration that government was the problem, Mondale recognized government as a necessary instrument to address communal problems, not simply national security and law enforcement but education and social and health security and other public goods which even government's critics happily access. And he understood that progress in civil rights, for racial minorities and women, had depended on legislative, executive and judicial action, not principally on individual initiatives or free markets. Mondale thought government should be more effective and more transparent, more responsive and more accountable. As a senator, he had worked to make filibusters more difficult and to protect individual privacy rights from overzealous government intelligence agencies.
Mondale certainly had personal incentive to imagine a more robust vice presidency but his work in achieving it reflected a larger commitment to improve government and displayed skills and dispositions of his public service. The new and constructive vice presidency would not have happened without President Carter's leadership but it also would not have occurred without Mondale's ability to reimagine the office and his skill in executing their creation.
Carter and Mondale changed the vice presidency from a limited institution which provided a presidential successor and did some work episodically in the executive branch into an integral part of the president's inner circle on an ongoing basis. Whereas Mondale's predecessors had thought vice-presidential influence depended on owning some issue or program, Mondale reached the counterintuitive, but wise, conclusion that less turf could produce more power. Mondale understood that the vice presidency could be significant if it added value rather than assumed redundant roles. Mondale became a senior presidential adviser and troubleshooter. His skillful implementation of that role helped convince others of its merit and Carter's and Mondale's successors have largely preserved the Mondale Model as a new institution that allows the government to operate more effectively.
Elevating the vice presidency was not an end in itself. Mondale used the vice presidency to advance his core commitment to make America a more inclusive and pluralistic society. He took the lead in making sure that the Carter administration supported affirmative action in public education notwithstanding the more conservative inclinations of leaders in the Department of Justice. Mondale recognized the merit in diversity and that decades of discrimination had produced an unequal field that required corrective action. He used the robust vice presidency to advance a core Mondale value, one he had pursued as a senator when he led the fight to legislate against racial discrimination in housing and did later, as a presidential candidate, when he chose the first running mate who was not a white male, Geraldine Ferraro. Regarding the latter, Mondale's process opened doors to a range of communities traditionally excluded from presidential politics including women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Italian-Americans. Mondale was widely criticized for considering those who did not hold familiar vice-presidential feeder positions but he recognized that in 1984 it was unfair to insist on the same paper credentials from members of demographic groups who had been denied access to political office.
Mondale also used his vice presidency to secure fair treatment for powerless communities with needs. The fair housing battle and his efforts to protect children had been examples during his Senate career. As vice president, Mondale was central to the Carter administration's unwillingness to tolerate apartheid in South Africa. And when Mondale learned that Indochinese boat people were being forced to flee from their homeland in unseaworthy vessels, he galvanized first the Carter administration and then the world to accept responsibility to rescue and provide refuge for the victims. Many came to the United States and have enhanced their communities and our country.
In addition to vindicating human rights, the vice presidency provided Mondale an opportunity to work to secure the peace, for instance in his important roles in achieving the accords between Israel and Egypt before and during Camp David and in normalizing relations with China.
Mondale never forgot that notwithstanding his essential role in the Carter-Mondale 1976 election, Carter was president. He advanced his values by persuading Carter not by circumventing his authority.
Before leaving the vice presidency, Mondale and his staff educated his successor, George H. W. Bush, and his team on the innovations he had brought to the second office. Mondale and his associates did not hesitate to share with a past and future political rival secrets of his success in office. Reagan and Bush largely adopted the Carter- Mondale vice-presidential innovations as have subsequent administrations of both parties.
So yes, the headlines are right to celebrate Mondale's historic role in converting the vice presidency to the constructive and significant job it has become. But that great contribution was not simply an end in itself. It reflected Mondale's belief in the possibilities of government and allowed him to advance values of his career-- pluralism, just treatment of the powerless, peace. He advanced those ideals in a manner that recognized the president's role. And he passed on the new vice presidency in a way that placed country over partisan or self-interest.
That's a Living Legacy to be proud of and to learn from.