War Stories

The Vice Presidency Was a Joke Before Walter Mondale

Every veep from Bush to Harris owes him a debt of gratitude.

Carter and Mondale clasp hands at a stage while their families stand beside them.
Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City on July 15, 1976.  Library of Congress/Warren K. Leffler/Handout via Reuters

Walter Mondale, who died Monday at the age of 93, was the first modern vice president, serving not just as a running mate to win electoral votes that the main candidate might otherwise lose but also—after the victory—as a senior policy adviser in the White House. This was a condition that Mondale demanded before he joined the Democratic ticket in 1976, and a promise that President Jimmy Carter fulfilled.

Mondale was the first vice president to get briefed on the nuclear war plan and to participate in nuclear-attack drills. (Carter was appalled that no previous president had let the No. 2 in.) He also heard intelligence briefings, took part in cabinet meetings, and joined the debates at National Security Council sessions.

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The contrast with previous vice presidents was stunning.

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John Nance Garner, a former speaker of the House who held the job for the first two of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms, later told Lyndon Johnson—a man who followed a similar path to power—that the vice presidency “ain’t worth a bucket of warm shit.” (Schoolbook historians bowdlerized the last word to “spit.”)

Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s final VP, didn’t even learn about the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb until after FDR died and he took over as the commander in chief.

Dwight Eisenhower’s view of his No. 2, Richard Nixon, can be summed up in his reply to a reporter who asked for an example of an idea of Nixon’s that the president had adopted: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

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John F. Kennedy shrewdly picked Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in order to win the South but afterward rarely saw, much less heeded, the former Senate powerhouse. Johnson was put in charge of the space program, which JFK had quickly lost interest in after shoving it into life with his stirring “we shall go to the moon” speech.

When Johnson moved into the Oval Office at Kennedy’s assassination, he treated his veep, Hubert Humphrey, with no more respect. One joke from the time has Humphrey asking Johnson, as they passed on a stairway, “How’s your health, Mr. President?”—to which Johnson replies, “Is that all you think about, Hubert?”

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Richard Nixon let Spiro Agnew, a former Maryland governor, serve as his attack dog on liberals, hippies, and the media, while Nixon tried on a new, more moderate image, but otherwise ignored him. When Agnew resigned after being indicted for criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, and tax fraud, Nixon named Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford as his new veep, apparently to protect himself from impeachment over Watergate. When Nelson Rockefeller dropped in to the Oval Office for a visit, Nixon pointed to his presidential desk and said, “Can you imagine Jerry Ford sitting in this chair?” (This was after Ford had become vice president.)

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In 1976, when Ford ran for the job he inherited, he made two fatal mistakes: He picked Bob Dole as his running mate, and he allowed not just three presidential debates—resuming a practice that had been moribund since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960—but also one vice presidential debate, an historic first. In that debate, Mondale appeared calm and competent; Dole came off as a bitter lunatic, at one point denouncing “Democrat wars,” including World War II. Martin Nolan, the Boston Globe’s chief political reporter, likened the spectacle to a debate between Winston Churchill and Bob Hope.

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A friend of mine at the time, who worked at a private polling firm doing work for the Carter campaign, later told me that 2 percent of respondents said they voted for Carter entirely because of Dole’s performance in the veep debate. Carter won the national popular vote by 2 points, so, depending on the margins geographically, it may be that Mondale vs. Dole, more than Carter vs. Ford, was the crucial contest.

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In 1980, amid a tumbling economy, the hostage crisis in Iran, and a general sense of weakness and dread, Carter got slammed by Ronald (“Morning in America”) Reagan, losing the popular contest by 9 points and picking up just 49 electoral votes.

Four years later, Mondale picked up his party’s torch, beating down insurgent candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson in a string of primaries, only to lose to Reagan by an even wider margin—18 points in the popular tally, with just 13 electoral votes, an even bigger blowout than Richard Nixon’s over George McGovern in 1972.* (After his defeat, Mondale asked McGovern, “When does it stop hurting?” McGovern replied, “When it does, I’ll let you know.”)

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Mondale, from his days as a Minnesota senator, was a fighter for the underdog at home and abroad. As vice president, he was the driving force behind a law to let South Vietnamese refugees into the United States. He was an amiable man, universally liked. In the second debate of the 1984 contest, when Reagan was asked if he was too old to run for president again, the 73-year-old incumbent replied: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale laughed along with the audience, but you could see a light go out of his face for the rest of the match and campaign. He knew the race was over.

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I vividly remember Mondale in both of those election debates—in 1980 and 1984—but have almost no memory of him in the decades following. Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Japan, where he did a very professional job. He tried to run for senator again in 2002, after Paul Wellstone died, but by that time politics had changed, in Minnesota and beyond, and Mondale lost to conservative Republican Norm Coleman by a couple of points.

His legacy is still felt daily in the office of the vice president. Every one of his successors—from George H.W. Bush to Kamala Harris—has enjoyed the same access to power, and the same privilege of a portfolio, as Mondale won from Carter. If nothing else, it means that, if the president goes down, the vice president is at least a bit ready to take over.

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Correction, April 20, 2021: This column originally stated that Mondale won 49 electoral votes in 1984, losing in the biggest landslide since 1972. It was only 13 votes and an even bigger landslide than 1972. Jesse Jackson’s first name was also misspelled.

In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer

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