Even historians who are not particularly sympathetic to Jimmy Carter's presidency share the widely accepted view that Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, was one of the most engaged and effective occupants the nation's No. 2 job.
So it means something when Mondale says there are limits to what a Vice President can and should do. And it should mean a lot that Mondale is arguing forcefully that Dick Cheney has exceeded those limits with results that are as practically dangerous as they are politically troubling.
"I think that Cheney has stepped way over the line," Mondale, who during his tenure as Carter's Vice President served as a senior adviser to the President and a prominent spokesman for Administration policies, explained Friady in an aggressive critique of the current Vice President during the opening session of a three-day University of Georgia conference on Carter's presidency.
"I think Cheney's been at the center of cooking up farcical estimates of national risks, weapons of mass destruction and the 9/11 connection to Iraq," Mondale continued in his Friday morning address, which focused on one of the most serious complaints aboit Cheney's tenure in the Bush White House: the penchant of the Vice President and his aides to pressure federal agencies, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, to produce reports that reflect Cheney's biases rather than reality.
Prior to the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq, Cheney repeatedly visited the CIA headquarters and demanded that briefers confirm his personal theories about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and about supposed links between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
When veteran CIA briefers informed the Vice President that the facts could not be forced to conform with his political views, Cheney dismissed them and demanded that other analysts brief him.
Eventually, members of the House Intelligence Committee wrote a letter to the Vice President urging him to stop pressuring CIA specialists to warp their reports to match his political whims. By then, however, Cheney was relying on the more politically analysts in an "intelligence" operation that had been set up within Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense.
Cheney got the reports he wanted. And President Bush, who meets daily with his Vice President and has made it clear that he defers to Cheney on a host of foreign and domestic policy matters, incorporated Cheney-certified theories and schemes into his public statements early in 2003.
Mondale says that Cheney's determination to fix intelligence in order to make a case for invading Iraq ill served both Bush and the best interests of the nation.
"If I had done as Vice President what this Vice President has done, Carter would have thrown me out of there," Mondale told the University of Georgia forum. "I don't think he could have tolerated a Vice President over there pressuring and pushing other agencies, ordering up different reports than they wanted to send us. I don't think he would have stood for it."
The current President has not been as deliberate or as muscular as Carter and other occupants of the Oval Office were in defining the role of the Vice President. Rather, Bush has accepted Cheney's ill-thought interventions, just as the chief executive has stood by the man many refer to as his "co-president."
But that does not mean that Congress and the American people have to stand by Cheney.
The record of Cheney's distortions and deceits, as well as his efforts to pressure government agencies to confirm his fantasies, is well established.
If Congress wants to force this Administration to accept reality--in the Middle East and elsewhere--the place to begin is by holding Cheney to account.
© 2007 The Nation