Magazine article The New Yorker

Back to the Seventies

Magazine article The New Yorker

Back to the Seventies

Article excerpt

For most people, it's hard to imagine what it's like to be Barack Obama as his Administration's high hopes are dashed by daily waves of bad news. But for Walter Mondale, who spent four years as Jimmy Carter's Vice-President, the experience is all too familiar. When the public sours on you, he said last week, the Presidency seems "like a unique four-year marriage contract, in which divorce is not an option."

Mondale, now in his eighties, was speaking on the phone from his home state of Minnesota, in advance of the publication of his memoir, "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics." He could not help noting the similarities between Obama's embattled White House and Carter's. The problems that he and Carter faced from 1976 until 1980, he recalled, often seemed "overwhelming," with "no good answers" in sight. As the economy was ravaged by what was known as "stagflation," he said, the public "just turned against us--same as with Obama." He went on, "People think the President is the only one who can fix their problems. And, if he doesn't produce solutions, I'm telling you--when a person loses a job, or can't feed his family, or can't keep his house, he is no longer rational. They become angry, they strike out--and that's what we have now. If you're President, they say, 'Do something!' "

The Carter Administration's impotence was underscored by the Iranian hostage crisis, which Mondale recalled as "four hundred and forty-four days of hell." He said, "We were trying everything we could to get our hostages home, yet we couldn't get it done. It was fiendish."

Mondale recalled that President Carter, as his standing in the polls slid, "began to lose confidence in his ability to move the public." The President, he said, should have "got out front earlier with the bad news and addressed the people more." He sees a similar problem with Obama: "I think he needs to get rid of those teleprompters, and connect. He's smart as hell. He can do it. Look right into those cameras and tell people he's hurting right along with them." Carter, on the other hand, he said, might not have been able to. "At heart, he was an engineer," Mondale said. "He wanted to sit down and come up with the right answers, and then explain it. He didn't like to do a lot of emotional public speaking."

Like Obama, Carter racked up a series of legislative and diplomatic achievements that seemed barely to boost his standing. …

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