The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s what Kamala Harris owes to Walter Mondale

Mondale forged today’s model of a vice president actively involved in policy

Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, wave as they leave a rally in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 5, 1984. (Jack Smith/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Upon the death of former vice president Walter “Fritz” Mondale last week, Vice President Harris remarked that Mondale’s signature in her desk drawer, along with that of 11 other vice presidents, will always remind her of her gratitude for his life of service.

But Harris won’t see Mondale’s signature very often because that desk sits in the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. And Mondale’s foremost contribution to the vice presidency was reshaping the position from a primarily ceremonial role into a position of influence, which included a physical move from the ceremonial office to the West Wing.

Here’s how Walter Mondale changed the U.S. vice presidency.

‘The most insignificant office’

Mondale’s recent predecessors worked out of the ceremonial office, which was appropriate given that most of their work (and there wasn’t much) was ceremonial.

For most of American history, the vice presidency was a political joke. John Adams, the first vice president, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Things went downhill from there. In 1974, historian Arthur Schlesinger asked whether we needed a vice president at all, calling it “a job of spectacular and, I believe, incurable, frustration.”

President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, saw the vice presidency as an underused resource. In his running mate, Mondale, Carter found a partner to remake the vice presidency.

Exile no more

Together, Carter and Mondale established what leading “Veepologist” Joel Goldstein calls the “White House Vice Presidency” — a version of our second-highest office in which the VP is fully integrated into the policy process and a key adviser and surrogate to the president.

Carter and Mondale set new precedents for vice presidents. Before Mondale, vice presidents rarely met with the president, and they and their staff had little access to White House meetings. During the post-election transition, Mondale wrote a memo to Carter outlining that to be an effective partner, he and his staff needed to be fully integrated into the White House, including access to intelligence briefings and White House meetings. The memo is the founding document of the modern White House vice presidency.

Carter agreed to Mondale’s suggestions, then added that he needed the vice president to be closer at hand and offered the West Wing office. He believed the Eisenhower building — a five-minute walk from the West Wing — was too far away to be effective in the fast-paced White House process. Mondale concurred, noting, “If you’re over there, you might as well be in Baltimore.”

Thanks to these arrangements established by Carter and Mondale, today, as a matter of course, Harris joins President Biden to receive the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), she lunches with Biden privately each week, and her staff represents her in key White House meetings.

Kamala Harris will be vice president. Expect Indian Americans to get more involved in politics.

Access yes, influence perhaps

Paul Light, in his 1984 study of the vice presidency, observed that these changes gave the vice president critical access. Influencing the president and participating in the policy process wouldn’t be possible without this access, but access does not guarantee influence.

Mondale exercised influence not by pushing his own agenda, but by helping Carter be a better president. Mondale played his role with discretion and advised his successors to do the same: Offer advice confidentially to limit leaks, do not claim credit or avoid blame, and “do not wear a president down” — make the case then accept the president’s decision. Mondale’s successors, Republicans and Democrats alike, have followed this model.

The yin and yang of the White House

Mondale advised future vice presidents to complement their president. In this, Mondale excelled. Carter was the first modern “outsider” president, with no political experience at the national level. Trained as an engineer, Carter sought optimal solutions without consideration of politics. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called Mondale “a vital political barometer” and “a needed corrective” to Carter’s refusal to consider politics.

Mondale demonstrated how the new vice presidency could be a deep asset. His knowledge of the Senate and feel for politics was critical for turning major Carter initiatives into reality. Mondale’s legislative acumen was essential in passing the Panama Canal Treaty, for instance. The then-head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and several Carter-Mondale staffers, including Carter’s domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat, told me in interviews that Mondale’s relationships with the American Jewish community and Israeli leadership played a crucial role in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.

Mondale’s long history of public service helped Carter on issues large and small, and his experienced staff helped the Carter team with the nuts and bolts of congressional relations.

Here’s an example: As a senator, Mondale had served on the Church Committee, investigating intelligence community excesses. In the White House, Mondale led the administration’s intelligence reform efforts, including the creation of the FISA Court, which established legal oversight of domestic intelligence wiretapping.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

Vice presidents now follow the Mondale model

During the Reagan presidency, Vice President George H.W. Bush brought national security expertise that helped plug gaps in his boss’s chaotic national security process. Vice President Al Gore helped the sometimes-indecisive President Bill Clinton make choices and stick to them. Even the oft-maligned Vice President Dan Quayle was able to advise President Bush on legislative affairs.

Biden has encouraged Harris to play the role he played as an adviser to President Barack Obama — ask tough questions and offer counsel as “the last voice in the room” before big decisions are made.

Mondale observed that when the vice president can complement the president, “the American people will have a stronger, more capable team in the White House.” And he saw having a woman as vice president as part of how that team should change, picking Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984, the first American woman on a major party ticket.

Like Mondale before her, Harris will make her own vice presidency, but Mondale’s model sets the stage.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Aaron Mannes is a lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. His PhD was on the evolving role of the vice presidency, and he is the author of the world’s only website devoted to the topic. Find him on Twitter @awmannes.