Walter Mondale, Vice President under Jimmy Carter from 1977 until 1981, has died at the age of 93. A longstanding and recognisable figure in American politics, he served as a Senator from Minnesota before joining Carter’s ticket, and later served as Ambassador to Japan.
Carter’s single-term presidency was not the most successful, being beleaguered by a poor economy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, as well as questions about Carter’s ability as President. Carter and Mondale were roundly defeated for re-election in 1980 by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and Mondale would then go on to lose the 1984 Presidential Election to Reagan by a landslide, winning just his home state of Minnesota – and then by just over 3,000 votes – and the District of Columbia.
However, for the lack of success he had as a candidate on Presidential tickets, Mondale’s successes lay elsewhere, namely in how he transformed the very office of Vice President of the United States.
When Carter selected Mondale as his running mate, Mondale sent Carter a seven-page document outlining what he hoped his role as Vice President might look like. In it, he highlighted some key areas in which he felt he could be of greatest help to the would-be President: firstly, as a general advisor to the President. Mondale felt that previous administrations had been let down by “the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or often what others want him to hear”. Mondale, using his experience in government and politics, felt would be the best-placed person to offer Carter impartial advice. In order to achieve this, he required access to the same intelligence information as the President, a role in key meetings, and access to the President, including an office of his own in the West Wing of the White House and weekly lunches with the President – a tradition that continues today. Secondly, the Vice President would be a troubleshooter, as well as play a role in foreign relations. Overall, Mondale placed a greater importance on his re-imagined role than his duties as President of the Senate, a role which he viewed as “ceremonial with the exception of casting tie-breaking votes”, and one demanding “a minimum amount of time”.
It was Mondale’s eagerness to be of as great a practical use to the President as possible which was the key to the success of the re-imagined office; the Vice President was to be the President’s right-hand man and most trusted confidant, rather than – as Paul Light described – “errand-boys, political hitmen, professional mourners and incidental commission chairmen”. While many Vice Presidents have used the office as a stepping stone into the presidency (Danny M. Adkison in 1983 suggested the Vice Presidency was “a kind of internship or apprenticeship” for future presidents), Mondale developed a Vice Presidency which existed to support the President in his work. Indeed, Vice President Mondale set to work in his new role during the transition period, and travelled the world extensively during their four year term, playing a part in defining issues of the Carter Presidency, including the Camp David Accords and addressing racial discrimination in Southern Africa, as well as, domestically, the Chrysler bailout. However, despite selling Carter the advantage of having him on hand to advise, Mondale never tried to unduly influence Carter beyond his provision of advice and support.
While subsequent Vice Presidents have varied in their deference to the ‘Mondale model’, the impact of the changes Mondale made to the Vice Presidency have been carried by subsequent administrations; Al Gore and Joe Biden served as close personal confidants to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, George H. W. Bush provided Reagan with a solid résumé of government experience, and Mike Pence played a sizeable role in foreign relations in the Trump Administration. All have enjoyed offices close to the President, weekly lunches and greater access, all thanks to Mondale. Joel K Goldstein agrees that “[t]he Mondale tenure made the vice presidency a far more significant institution”, adding that it is thanks to him that subsequent Vice Presidents have enjoyed an office in the West Wing, increased access to the President and his classified information, and a role in the executive decision-making process. Beyond this, the Mondale model has lead to greater attention being paid to Presidential running mates due to the level of influence the office now holds.
The modern Vice Presidency is Mondale’s success, and his enduring legacy. Reflecting on her 2018 book, First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power, Kate Andersen Brower said “every former vice president [since Mondale]…rhapsodized about the partnership between Carter and Mondale. That is because Mondale made the vice presidency — an oft-maligned position — into an actual job.”
Walter Mondale was probably the person who best understood the needs required by the office of the President, despite never having served in it himself. Marie D. Natoli wrote in 1977 – within the first few months of Mondale’s Vice Presidency – that “no matter how inept any President might be, he will be remembered while even the most brilliant occupants of the second office are dim shadows from the presidential administration of which they were part”. Not so for Walter Mondale; he re-imagined the office of the Vice President into a dynamic, influential and engaged one, the model of which has continued to be embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike.
 Light, Paul. “Vice-Presidential Influence under Rockefeller and Mondale.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 617-40.
 Adkison, Danny M. “The Vice Presidency as Apprenticeship.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1983): 212-18.
 Goldstein, Joel K. “The Rising Power of the Modern Vice Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2008): 374-89
 Natoli, Marie D. “The Mondale Vice Presidency: Is the Die Cast?”, in Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 2/3, 1977, p101–108.