As former vice president Walter Mondale seeks the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination and the White House, his identification with former president Jimmy Carter simultaneously constitutes both his strongest political credential and his heaviest political cross. Thanks to Carter, Mondale was able to bring the office of vice president to unparalleled influence--in an administration that was publicly repudiated.
Somehow, while prominently involved in an unsuccessful presidency, Mondale emerged as the successful vice president, the admitted role model for his Republican successor. Yet Mondale's allegiance to the president who granted him that unique role was never seriously questioned; Fritz Mondale was loyal.
But a Feb. 25 Boston Globe story by reporters Tom Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie revealed a different Mondale, one who was willing to discuss publicly criticism of and disagreement with Carter policies that Mondale, as vice president, had forcefully championed. Mondale told the Globe he opposed a number of Carter actions, including the racetrack system for the MX missile, the grain embargo following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
These are not positions that should surprise any Mondale-watchers. But Mondale's timing and method of establishing daylight between himself and Jimmy Carter raised questions about the Minnesotan's judgment if not about his character.
Mondale's supporters have always viewed Carter's support as, at best, a mixed blessing.
But in this case, loyalty, which is almost always understood and rarely undervalued in politics, gave Mondale an out. After all, loyalty had been the expressed basis of his support for Richard Daley in the Chicago mayoral race.
Mondale did not need to reveal his disagreement with the president he served. A satisfactory answer to such questions would have been: I'm proud of the job I did and the president I served. We put 9 million Americans to work, not 12 million Americans out of work. Of course, we made mistakes and had disagreements; you can read about them in my memoirs to be published after my second term in the White House, in late 1993.
Even when privately disagreeing, Mondale was publicly a loyal soldier. Swallowing his personal reservations about the Soviet grain embargo, he was able during the Iowa primary campaign to charge that opponents of the embargo--the most prominent of whom was then Edward Kennedy-- were pursuing "the politics of the moment." Supporting the embargo, Mondale publicly argued, was "the patriotic thing to do." Iowa, with its large farm population, will again be the first presidential test in 1984.
Two other issues on which Mondale revealed disagreement with Carter-- the MX and arms sales to Saudi Arabia--have particular relevance to two important Democratic primary constituencies: Jewish voters and anti-Pentagon voters.
Perhaps, as one Mondale strategist maintains, Mondale in the Globe article was merely answering insistent questions from two veteran reporters. In that case, Mondale was simply "retailing," talking to those in his immediate presence with little regard for the "wholesale" world beyond. That would be much more believable in a national politician less savvy and shrewd than Fritz Mondale.
Another Mondale admirer argued that the Minnesotan was just fulfilling an obligation "to put the past in perspective." But to an electorate that does not yet know him, Mondale disclosed less about the administration he served than he did about himself. And while it was a political misstep and not lethal, it was not the kind of information that makes many people feel either good or better about Fritz Mondale.