It is an axiom of American politics that no man can be happy and Vice-President at the same time. But in Walter Frederick Mondale, the 42nd in a long—and often long-suffering—line of seconds-in-command, a Washington precedent may be set. After 13 months in office Fritz Mondale is still looking, talking and acting like a man who enjoys his work.
The excitement of the campaign has long since faded, of course. And, yes, he concedes, at times he does feel confined by his role. “We have to determine the President’s schedule before we make up our own,” he says. “It’s not like the Senate, where I could decide what I would pursue that day. There I was about as independent as a person could be.”
The Vice-Presidency has its compensations—better salary (Mondale earns $75,000, versus a senator’s $57,000), plenty of status and deluxe travel and a Victorian mansion on 25 acres of prime real estate. “I can’t say I chafe regularly under the schedule,” Mondale says with a grin. “Now I get home for dinner more often.”
Far more important, he has avoided the fate of many of his 41 predecessors, for whom the Vice-Presidency was a polite form of political burial. His working relationship with Jimmy Carter, perhaps the closest ever forged between a Vice-President and his President, is a wellspring that clearly sustains Mondale. His visibility increases daily.
The ground rules of this relationship were established when candidate Carter was sounding out prospective running mates in the summer of 1976. With Fritz and Jimmy, Mondale remembers, it was instant compatibility. “I told him I wasn’t interested in a ceremonial post,” Mondale says. To a degree that has confounded Washington cynics, President Carter has fulfilled his covenant to provide Mondale with useful employment. “He’s the President’s point man,” a top White House aide says of Mondale. “He’s into everything from human rights to problems with the Western governors to foreign policy. He’s smart, he knows how to deal with Congress, and he’s not superficial. He understands the political as well as the intellectual implications of government programs.”
Administration critics (and even some friends) complain that Carter’s Georgians, self-styled outsiders who have yet to feel at home in the capital, would be tilting vainly with Washington bureaucrats were it not for Mondale’s astute hand. Though such criticism is doubtless exaggerated, the Vice-President’s familiarity with the habits and quirks of the capital are invaluable. “He’s worth 10 votes to the President in the Senate,” says Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the voluble New York Democrat. “He knows the place in a way no one else in the Administration does.” Arizona’s Barry Goldwater adds an approving Republican nod. “Mondale was a fortunate choice, one of the few the President has made. He’s not one to sit by meekly and not be heard.”
For Mondale’s voice to be heard in the Oval Office, he need only raise it. His own White House offices are just down the corridor, and vice-presidential staffers claim he has spent as much as 50 hours a week with the President. That seems hyperbolic, but Washington clearly understands, as a Senate aide puts it, “If you want to get a message to the President, send it through Mondale.” Though he cannot bring himself to address his boss as “Jimmy” (“It has to do with the office”), the Vice-President says he has “never been anything but frank with the President. He’s starving for candor and doesn’t like sycophants. But it’s amazing,” Mondale adds. “I’ve watched how old pros—good friends of mine—have changed. They take a different tack when they meet with the President.” (Some of them treat him differently too, Mondale says.)
He has sensed some of the isolation that goes with high office, and the death of Hubert Humphrey, his mentor and confidant, left him a lonelier man. When Humphrey was dying, his family asked Mondale to help persuade the senator to go home, one last time, to Minnesota. “I think Hubert was afraid that if he left Washington he would never return,” the Vice-President says. “He was like a father to me, but toward the end our friendship turned into something more. We talked on the phone almost every day, and his death had a tremendous personal impact.”
In other respects, Mondale insists he has changed very little. The unpampered son of a Methodist minister in rural Minnesota, he almost instinctively shuns the flamboyant. He smokes maybe three cigars a day and drinks Scotch-and-water and wine. He buys his clothes off the rack at J.C. Penney and was astounded recently to be named to a best-dressed list for the first time in his life. “What’s going on back there?” asked Humphrey from Minnesota. “It’s not me,” protested the Vice-President. “It’s my position. I still keep a suit until it wears out.”
For Joan Mondale, 47, life as Second Lady has opened new vistas. An avid potter, she has become the Administration’s spokesman for the arts. She persuaded the National Park Service to replace imported knick-knacks in its shops with native American crafts. She has lobbied tirelessly for increases in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. “The Harris Poll shows that people want art,” she declares. “They may not go into a museum more than once or twice a year, but they want to know it’s there. They want to go to the theater. And they want well-run symphony orchestras.” In other respects, Joan Mondale has tried to keep her family’s life on an even keel. She may have Filipino Navy men to clean her house and cook, but the Mondales still have dinner at 6:30 sharp. “I don’t know another soul in Washington who eats that early,” comments a friend.
Aware that the Vice-Presidency will not last forever, the Mondales are mildly concerned about its impact on their three children, but seem confident that good sense will prevail. Teddy, 20, lives with his parents and is more interested in dirt-track motorcycle racing than in college. (“I know he’ll go when he’s ready,” his father says optimistically.) Eleanor, 18, is a senior at a boarding school near Baltimore, and William, 15, is a three-sport athlete at a private school in Washington. A budding linguist, he recently accompanied his parents to Mexico as his father’s interpreter.
Inevitably, Fritz Mondale’s political future has become the object of intense speculation. An effective speaker whose self-deprecating wit leavens his earnest delivery, he has been dispatched on frequent fence-mending trips for his party, and has accumulated impressive political IOUs. At age 50, it is noted, he has time to make his move, whether Jimmy Carter serves one term or two. “You won’t believe this,” Mondale protests, “but I just don’t think about it.” He’s right. Nobody on Capitol Hill does believe him. “He plays second fiddle better than any man I know,” says a former Senate aide. “He’s ambitious, but smart enough to keep it under wraps.”
If there is any strong reservation about Mondale among his fellow Democrats, it is a lingering sense that he has not had to work very hard for what he has gotten. Before being named as the President’s running mate, he was appointed Minnesota’s attorney general in 1960 and to the Senate in 1964. (When Mondale ran semiseriously for the White House in 1974, Washington joked cruelly: “Fritz would make a wonderful President if he could only get appointed.”) “He’s never had to sweat for anything,” says one watchful fellow pol, “and I don’t know how he’d react when put to the test.” It is a suggestion the Vice-President has heard before; it never fails to annoy him. “It’s true I’ve been fortunate,” Mondale says. “But I’ve tried to work hard and keep a good standard of ethics and be responsible. Not only because it’s the best politics but on the theory that any job could be the last public office you’re going to have and you’d better do it properly. But even with all of that,” he says with a trace of reluctance, “I have to admit that I’ve been lucky so far.”