DENVER — Howard Dean came up from behind and clapped Walter Mondale on the shoulder. “Joe Biden,” he said. “Great choice. Great choice.”
It was two glasses into cocktail hour on Sunday evening at the International Leaders Forum, a quadrennial powwow of foreign dignitaries hosted by the National Democratic Institute, an organization that promotes good governance around the world. The NDI is loosely affiliated with the national Democratic Party, which explains why the forum’s opening reception, held at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, attracted both Dean and Mondale, who’d spoken at an earlier panel discussion. (Not to mention House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who gave an opening speech, and a shambling Ted Turner, who politely declined to be interviewed. “I’m not commenting on the race,” the billionaire internationalist said. “I’m just learning and enjoying myself.”)
When Dean walked up, Mondale was talking with a graying Slavic couple about Russia’s move into Georgia. He broke away from a conversation and told Dean that he, too, thought Biden was an inspired choice. Then the two Democrats got into a hushed and cryptic discussion about the state of play in Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, that unlikely battleground. (It was the only state Mondale won when he ran for president in 1984.)
It has been more than 30 years since Mondale was elected to the vice presidency, in 1976. As the longest-tenured ex-vice president alive, he was asked if he had any advice for Biden, with whom he served in the Senate for four years. Joe Biden and I are old, old friends,” Mondale said. Then he was interrupted by someone who wanted to introduce himself: the prime minister of Mauritius. Mondale, a hale and talkative 80-year-old, exchanged diplomatic pleasantries. Then he continued, saying that Biden “would be the ideal person for the position. I just know this is going to work out.”
Mondale was asked how the circus surrounding Biden’s selection—the home stakeouts, the short lists, the breathless scuttlebutt on Drudge—compared to what he went through. He said that Jimmy Carter had a much more relaxed approach: He invited seven or eight prospective veeps down to his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, for a conversation. That was basically the extent of the vetting process. (And even that was considered strenuous at the time, a change forced by the Thomas Eagleton fiasco four years before.) “Carter exec-utized the vice presidency,” Mondale said, making the case that his tenure began a trend of steadily more powerful vice presidencies that ended, for better or worse, with Dick Cheney. “It’s really changed how the vice president acts, and how he’s perceived.”
With that, of course, has come increased scrutiny of the vice president—and the vice presidential selection process. “Since the last three or four runs, the nominees are less public about it,” Mondale said. “That way the people who don’t get it aren’t embarrassed.”
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