In an otherwise masterful document, the Founding Fathers created the vice presidency with almost no thought as to how it would fit into the structure of the new federal government. The office was, in fact, a constitutional afterthought designed solely to provide a president-in-reserve, and for 200 years it languished in obscurity, derision, and irrelevance. This is the story of how Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale changed all that.
By 1976 I had known Walter Mondale for 15 years. Although we were separated in age by nearly a decade, we shared a Norwegian heritage, a love of politics in the progressive Minnesota tradition, and an appreciation for dry humor. In 1972 Mondale had sensed that I was ready to move on after three years as chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He asked me to come to Washington to head his Senate office and, not incidentally, help him prepare for a possible run for the presidency. I gladly accepted, and it turned out to be a good fit. We worked together well, and I became more convinced than ever that he had, and deserved, a future in national politics.
In the late spring of 1976, I was not alone in concluding that he might be well positioned to become that year's Democratic vice-presidential nominee. Jimmy Carter had just come from nowhere to the brink of securing the party's presidential nomination. Hubert H. Humphrey, Minnesota's other U.S. senator who had narrowly lost the presidency in 1968 but never fully lost his presidential ambitions, had just announced that he would not enter the late 1976 primaries, as he had been sorely tempted to do. Humphrey's decision meant that Mondale, his close friend and protege, was now free to think about a position on the ticket for himself. It was not an implausible idea. Carter was a pro-civil rights, moderate governor from the South who had never served in Washington; Mondale was a northern liberal who had spent more than a decade in the U.S. Senate. National tickets had traditionally been constructed to "balance" such factors, so if Carter wanted to continue that practice, he would be hard pressed to find a better balance than Mondale could provide.
There was only one problem with this seemingly compelling idea: Mondale was totally uninterested. In fact, he wanted no part of it. He had recently concluded an unhappy, year-long presidential "exploratory" effort, which he ended for a variety of personal and political reasons, including, famously, his lack of affection for Holiday Inns. He was well into the process of re-engaging in the business of the Senate, and he was finding particular satisfaction in the work of the Select Committee on Intelligence, which was then immersed in an unprecedented examination of the FBI and the CIA.
Why, he argued, should he consider giving up an institution he loved (and, he didn't need to add, a very safe seat in that institution) for an office that had been the subject of derision and bad jokes for nearly two centuries? Most pointedly, he noted the slights, humiliations, and generally bad treatment that Humphrey had suffered in the Johnson White House, the same kind of treatment then being visited on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in Gerald Ford's White House. Why, he asked me, should he trade his independence as a senator for an office of total dependency and no prescribed duties except presiding over the Senate, where he could only vote to break ties?
A good deal of history in addition to this logic was on Mondale's side of the argument. Going all the way back to John Adams, the nation's first vice president, it was difficult, if not impossible, to come up with an occupant of the office who had anything approaching a happy experience. After many hours of discussion, it was fair to say that Mondale's position on the matter was becoming entrenched and showed no visible signs of softening.
Unable to persuade him of the merits of an idea that were so obvious to me, I decided to seek help. …