Washington — One of the major accomplishments of President Carter is that he made it possible, apparently for the first time in history, for a vice-president to be truly useful.
In fact, one of the few uncontested assertions that can be made these days is to say that Walter (Fritz) Mondale did a masterful job as vice-president.
Republicans agree and indicate they hope George Bush will do likewise. Even Kennedy Democrats, who felt the sharp edge of Mondale's political oratory, seem willing to concede that he was a "super" No. 2.
"One of the things I am hopeful will be the legacy of our administration," says Mondale, "is the new institutional arrangement we worked out between the president and the vice-president."
The still youngish Veep, who leaves no doubt about possibly running for president four years from now, was chatting with a few reporters over breakfast the other day at his big Victorian mansion.
"It has worked," he said of his relationship with the President, to whom he has been a close consultant on all issues, foreign and domestic. "When it started I didn't think it would. In fact the whole history of such efforts to build up the vice-presidency was grim. But now that it is over, I wonder why it hasn't happended before."
Mondale pointed out that the essential element in this relationship was that the President and he had liked each other. "Otherwise," he said, "it just wouldn't work."
He said that he had talked to Nelson Rockefeller before he (Mondale) moved into the vice-presidency. "Rocky," he said, "was bitter about his total exclusion from the White House -- not by Ford but by the White House staff."
Mondale said it was very important that the vice-president be privy to everything that is going on -- and that by becoming a consultant to the president and with unlimited access to the chief executive the vice-president be ready, on a moment's notice, to take on presidential responsibilities should they suddenly fall on his shoulders.
"It is not fair under those circumstances," Mondale added, "that the vice-president, now the new president, have to have on-the-job training for several months at the expense of everyone."
The vice-president also provided these views:
On the job of being president: "Before I took office I had lunch with Clark Clifford. And he said that you don't remotely appreciate what you are getting into. And even with all the years I'd been around here, I must say he was correct. The magnitude, the range, the intensity, the controversial nature of the job is beyond description. So a president needs all the help he can get."
On the failings of this administration: "I'M not sure that we effectively explained to the American people the nature of the difficulties we were in, the time it would take to solve them, and the complexity, and controversy, and sacrifice that they entailed.
"And I include myself in this criticism. And I don't know if we could have done better. But I think the public education role of the presidency is a crucial element. And I'm just not satisfied that we made that case as well as we should."
On his advice on how to make the system work better: "First of all, I would relax a little bit in terms of this emphasis on 'working better.' In other words , my old friend Hubert [Humphrey] used to say you can read the Bible from the first word to the last and read the Constitution all the way through, and you can read the Magna Carta and you will never see the word 'efficiency' mentioned once.
"Our system is not supposed to run on time. When issues are serious, when they are controversial, they are supposed to simmer for a while. They are supposed to slow down so that the public is engaged -- so that the people can take a whack at us before final decisions are made.
"So when you want to enter into a SALT agreement, when you want to pass a windfall profits tax, it is supposed to take time -- it should take time. And when you are done, you will have something better, and the American people will support it."
And, again on the vice-presidency: "People have asked me whether we should institutionalize this relationship by law or something. I don't think so at all. I think it is intensely personal between the president and vice-president.
"I don't think there should be any kind of dilution of presidential power. There shouldn't be an assistant president. People can assist the president -- but there should be no assistant president."