Harry Truman once quipped that the job of the vice president is to “go to weddings and funerals.” But that no-heavy-lifting approach went out the window when Walter Mondale took office as Jimmy Carter’s vice president in 1977. “Mondale really transformed the vice presidency from a job that didn’t amount to much to the job it is today, which is a very consequential part of the government,” says Saint Louis University School of Law professor Joel Goldstein, author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution . In a statement, Carter said that Mondale “had excellent ideas about how to make the vice presidency a full-time and productive job. He had sound judgment and strong beliefs and never was timid about presenting them.”
Goldstein says that Mondale—a two-term U.S. senator who was the first vice president to have an office inside the White House—was fully versed on all of the president’s policies. For instance, Mondale convinced Carter to reform the government’s intelligence-gathering activities and to file a brief in support of affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke , a 1978 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of affirmative action in graduate school admissions.
When Carter went to Camp David in 1978 to broker a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, Mondale was initially designated to remain at the White House. But days into the negotiations, Carter summoned Mondale to Camp David. “The peace talks were falling apart,” Goldstein says. “Mondale went up there and talked to the Israelis himself. He was very much involved in the Camp David accords.”
It was during Mondale’s tenure that the vice president began having lunch with the president once a week, a practice that has become a White House custom. “I really was the general adviser to the president,” Mondale says. “Before our term, the vice president was standby equipment.”
Mondale was 32 and four years out of law school when he was appointed Minnesota attorney general in 1960. While in that position, he organized a group of other attorneys general to file an amicus brief in Gideon v. Wainwright , the 1963 Supreme Court case that secured indigent criminal defendants the right to counsel in state courts. In 1964 he was appointed to the Senate, replacing Hubert Humphrey, a position that Mondale held until he was elected vice president. Among other things, he wrote the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have provided federal funds for day care services, prenatal care, and medical care for handicapped children. (The legislation was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in 1972.)
In 1984 Mondale launched his own unsuccessful bid for the presidency, an effort that is best known for his selection of New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket. “I knew Geraldine would be a feisty, smart, tough candidate,” Mondale says. “And it did shake things up.” (Ferraro died last March.)
Now 83, Mondale is a senior counsel at Minneapolis’s Dorsey & Whitney, where he consults on international affairs (he was ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration). He also keeps a hand in local civic life: In July, he and former governor Arne Carlson formed a task force to try to help solve a state budget impasse.
But Mondale’s life isn’t all about power players and big issues. At Dorsey, Mondale takes summer associates out to breakfast. “He engages with us about everything from life in the White House to his favorite hot dog stand at the state fair,” says summer associate Nadia Aboussir. “It’s astounding that someone who was the vice president, an ambassador, and a senator will look at us as peers.”