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Walter Mondale was our first consequential vice president

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Walter F. Mondale was the first consequential Vice President of the United States.

He suffered a crushing defeat in his own race for president, while making history in selecting as his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a national ticket.

The Minnesota Democrat, who passed away last night at age 93, was vice president under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. He had served 12 years in the U.S. Senate, where he was an influential liberal force. Later he was President Clinton’s ambassador to Japan.

Prior to Carter-Mondale the vice presidency was largely a ceremonial office, mainly serving as a president-in-waiting if anything happened to the incumbent. John Nance Garner, a two-time vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, famously said the office “was not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Spiro T. Agnew took bribes. Lyndon Johnson was bored and humiliated in the role.

That changed under the “Mondale model.” He and Carter became partners; they had weekly lunches, and the vice president was designated not just for assignments but involved in every policy discussion and decision. “He had unprecedented access to the president,” noted Richard Moe, who was Mondale’s chief of staff.

An office for the vice president was set up near Carter’s. Previously, the VP’s office had been next door in the Old Executive Office Building. Mondale said, “If you’re in the EOB you might as well be in Baltimore.”

This more active and influential “Mondale model” has been adopted by subsequent administrations with Vice Presidents Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden. The current administration says that will be the case with Kamala Harris, who was the first Democratic female vice-presidential candidate since Ferraro in 1984.

Carter picked Mondale as a running mate because of Mondale’s close ties with labor and liberals. The Southern Baptist one-term Georgia governor and the progressive Minnesotan seemingly had little in common — but they forged a close bond that persisted for more than 40 years after they left office.

When Fritz Mondale — no one called him Walter — won the Democratic nomination, he ran into a political headwind against incumbent Ronald Reagan, a beneficiary of the strong recovery from economic  stagnation — the Republican campaign called it “Morning in America.” Mondale also paid a price for saying he would have to raise taxes.

Mondale lost every state but his own, while accepting defeat with grace.

And taxes were increased both under Reagan and his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush.

The selection of Ferraro was controversial; she was hammered by critics. Mondale was proud of the choice, and it was an early touchstone for women in American politics.

The former vice president flourished in the golden years of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. It was led by Hubert Humphrey and also included Sen. Gene McCarthy and Gov. Orville Freeman. When Humphrey became vice president in 1964, Mondale was appointed to the vacant seat. He then was elected twice.

Mondale was an influential figure in the Senate’s liberal bloc, championing civil rights, housing bills and child care measures. He was the key figure in persuading the Senate to change the votes required to stop a filibuster from two-thirds to 60 votes. Back then, that was considered progress.

In his last several years in the Senate, Mondale was deeply involved on the Intelligence Committee, and he played a prominent role in foreign policy in the Carter years. He got high marks as ambassador to Japan for his political savvy and respect as a former vice president. He and his wife, Joan, an artist, were an active presence.

He made a political mistake jumping into a 2002 Senate race after Democrat Paul Wellstone died in an airplane accident. That was Mondale’s only Minnesota defeat.

For all the jokes about “Norwegian understatement,” Fritz Mondale had a sharp wit, combined with a generous personality. He had many friends, few enemies.

He practiced law and stayed interested in Minnesota and national politics.

I had lunch with him in Minneapolis during the 2018 election. He was 90 and just returned from a week-long fishing trip in Canada. His charm and political instincts hadn’t changed. Asked about the “Mondale model” and the incumbent vice president, he replied, with a smile, “I wouldn’t want to be Trump’s Vice President.”

He outlined a practical liberal agenda while worrying about the left wing’s “rule or ruin” approach.

He was encouraged about the Democrats’ campaign that year, which he thought would be a prelude to winning back the Presidency in 2020.

He was right.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Al Gore Geraldine Ferraro Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Minnesota Vice President of the United States Walter F. Mondale Walter Mondale 1984 presidential campaign

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