The news that former President Jimmy Carter has metastatic cancer should cause some reflection on his service as a former president and as president. Part of his underappreciated legacy as president was the historic role he played in elevating the vice presidency from an awkward, standby position to a constructive part of government on an ongoing basis.
The vice presidency had grown before Carter became president but vice presidents tended to be involved episodically. Significant assignments came rarely and tended to end badly. The vice president’s main role was contingent, to provide a ready presidential successor. Gerald Ford’s vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller, began his service with lofty expectations and seemingly with a big portfolio over domestic policy. It soon became apparent that Rockefeller’s formal role did not confer power and his vice presidency ended in humiliation when he was dropped from Ford’s 1976 ticket. Presidents lacked the will, the savvy, or both to make their vice presidents constructive parts of their administrations on an ongoing basis. Presidents until Carter, that is.
Before he was nominated, Carter concluded that the vice presidency had been a wasted asset in part because presidents felt threatened by their number twos. Carter considered such insecurities irrational. Moreover, he viewed the president as a trustee for the American people, a fiduciary obligation that conferred a responsibility to use available resources and to make certain that the vice president was able and sufficiently prepared to assume the presidency.
In June, 1976 Carter embarked on the most intensive search for a running mate conducted up to that time. It included background checks, consultation with distinguished Americans to solicit their thoughts, and interviews with seven finalists. In Sen. Walter F. Mondale (D-Minn.), Carter found an extraordinarily able running mate he deemed politically and personally compatible.
During the 1976 campaign, Carter treated Mondale and his aides as partners, not subordinates. He solicited Mondale’s views and those of his principal associates. He included Mondale in campaign briefings and press conferences and frequently invoked Mondale’s name in speeches, especially after the vice-presidential debate revealed Mondale to be a considerable political asset. During the transition, he included Mondale in significant meetings to choose personnel and set policy and publicized his reliance on him.
Carter invited Mondale’s ideas regarding how the vice presidency should be constructed. He accepted Mondale’s suggestion that the vice president function essentially as a super adviser and trouble-shooter, not as someone with ongoing responsibility for particular programs. Carter adopted Mondale’s assessment regarding the resources he would need to succeed in that role, including regular access to Carter, receipt of the information the president got when he got it, and the appointment of Mondale associates to significant White House positions.
And Carter went beyond Mondale’s requests. He gave Mondale a choice office in the West Wing, admonished his staff not to undercut Mondale, and repeatedly and publicly, by word and deed, demonstrated his reliance on Mondale.
Carter and Mondale did not always agree, on policy or tactics. But Carter involved Mondale in virtually all important decisions and welcomed his advice, even when critical. Carter sent Mondale on missions that could only be handled at the highest levels. His visible confidence in his vice president enhanced Mondale’s impact.
Mondale’s term marked the first time a vice president served as a central part of White House decision-making and implementation on an ongoing basis. Yet its impact outlasted the Carter-Mondale term. Its main legacy was that it changed the vice presidency in an enduring way. Carter’s five successors—three Republicans and two Democrats—have differed in their approaches to the presidency, their ideologies and their personalities. Yet each has adopted the central features of the vice presidency Carter and Mondale created. During the past 34 years, five subsequent vice presidents have functioned as senior advisers and troubleshooters with the basic resources Carter gave Mondale. In so doing, they expanded the capacity of government and better prepared the vice president to succeed if need be.
To be sure, Carter did not do it alone. Mondale also played a critical role, in the vision he suggested, the talent he brought, and the way he conducted himself. Many of those who succeeded Carter and Mondale have also played constructive roles.
But it would not have happened without Carter. His commitment to making the vice presidency meaningful was necessary and unprecedented. As the public’s trustee, he accepted a responsibility to elevate the vice presidency and did so with skill and perseverance. He set an example and he and Mondale demonstrated the utility of their creation. And in doing so, Carter left the vice presidency, the presidency and American government much better than he found it.
Goldstein is the author of many works on the vice presidency including the forthcoming book, The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.