The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden, Joel K. Goldstein

Reviewed by Nancy Beck Young


Much of the literature on politics in the 1970s suggests a crisis in the presidency. Certainly Watergate played a role, but other external factors combined to leave the presidency in a seemingly diminished capacity, namely, deindustrialization and stagflation. Few scholars had located a positive story of government innovation in the executive branch in the late twentieth century. An exception is Joel K. Goldstein's new book, The White House Vice Presidency. Political scientists and historians alike will need to give serious consideration to this important book.

Goldstein locates substantive changes to the vice presidency during Walter Mondale's term in the office during Jimmy Carter's presidency, changes that became routinized in subsequent administrations. First were shifts in the election process: the presidential candidate took charge of the vice presidential selection, deemphasizing the role of the convention to select and nominate a presidential running mate, and the vice presidential candidate debate became a regular component of the fall campaign. Second, the White House vice presidency meant “the vice president has become part of the president's inner circle and works closely with him to achieve administration objectives. It signifies a set of roles, relationships, and resources now associated with the office that allow vice presidents to contribute importantly at the central and highest level of the executive branch” (p. 4). Goldstein spends considerable time unraveling the ad hoc nature of the late twentieth-century changes to the vice presidency, noting that Mondale and his successors through “informal” methods “converted a long-marginalized office into a significant political institution, and this change occurred when other governmental institutions were experiencing a quite different trajectory and becoming increasingly dysfunctional” (p. 10).

Based on a close reading of available archival materials; memoirs; newspapers; the secondary source literature in history, political science, and the law; presidential oral history projects; and published primary sources, The White House Vice Presidency is a well-researched, thoughtful, and nuanced treatment of a crucial turning point in the history of American governance. After a brief overview of the history of the vice presidency, Goldstein devotes three chapters to Mondale and his time in the number-two spot. He acknowledges there was no legal requirement to sustain the changes born of the Carter-Mondale experiment in empowering the vice presidency. Goldstein argues, “The precedents from Mondale's term were significant, but four years’ experience of an administration rejected at the polls could not automatically erase 188 years of alternative versions of a less robust office” (p. 105). Nevertheless, as Goldstein rightly notes, Vice Presidents George H.W. Bush through Joe Biden all built on the Mondale legacy, functioning as senior advisers to the president.

The next three chapters take a wide-angle view of exactly how subsequent vice presidents followed precedents that Mondale established. Goldstein contends that Bush, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore all played substantial roles in that process, and they also expanded the vice presidential portfolio by assuming operational responsibilities. Regarding Dick Cheney and Biden, the author found them to be different from each other and from their immediate predecessors, with Cheney working as a presidential adviser and on policy formation. Biden, on the other hand, worked on both foreign policy and legislative affairs, as well as advising the president.

Three more chapters explore the role of vice presidential candidates in electoral politics. Finally, three analytical chapters on vice presidents as successors, the political future of vice presidents, and the “difficult and controversial” nature of the office round out the book. Scholars would be well advised to read this consequential book; it offers fresh insight into contemporary American governance.

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