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Walter Mondale: A vice president who elevated the office

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who died Monday at age 93, did more for the high office he held as President Jimmy Carter’s stand-in than any previous occupant, by defining its prime functions in his own application for the job.

In 1976, prior to his selection as Carter’s running mate, Mondale wrote him a letter outlining how he would serve. He detailed not only his own qualifications but also how he could best assist the Carter administration, lacking as it did Washington experience.

Mondale at the time was a U.S. senator from Minnesota. He and his veteran chief aide, Richard Moe, composed a job application casting himself as veteran of the national political and legislative scene who could help Carter navigate unfamiliar waters.

The former Georgia governor seized the advice and the author, and in so doing grasped what came to be known as the Mondale model for vice presidential service, sometimes duplicated by later veep applicants.

Unfortunately for Mondale, his labors in behalf of President Carter failed to save either politician from electoral defeat four years later. The Democratic duo was crushed in its reelection bid by the glamorous Hollywood star turned California governor Ronald Reagan and his running mate George H.W. Bush.

Bush himself was chosen by Reagan only after a flirtation with former President Gerald Ford to run with him in what unfortunately was labeled by another television luminary, Walter Cronkite, as a “co-presidency” not intended by Reagan. The idea soon was abandoned and Bush was chosen reluctantly as available.

Mondale went on to gain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but he was badly beaten by Reagan. Mondale became the first presidential nominee to choose a woman, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York, as his running mate. Her presence did nothing to enhance his chances.

Mondale chose candor over political caution in that campaign by running on a platform of raising taxes to cope with large Reagan budget deficit. “By the end of my first term,” he bravely declared, “I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds. Let’s tell the truth, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

In 2002, Mondale, known widely as “Fritz,” answered his party’s call once more to stand in the vacancy left by the tragic death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash. He was narrowly defeated.

In the end, it was Mondale’s example of applying for the job of senator in the first instance by offering his experience in Washington, and his willingness to serve as second banana to the president he would serve, that distinguished him as a constructive vice president.

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