Walter Mondale

Walter Mondale was a peanut farmer's vice-president, got Reagan rattled in a television debate, and served as ambassador to Japan. Sean Farrell talks to the man who is now a roving envoy for US firm Dorsey & Whitney.

Vice-president of the United States should be a desirable job. In theory, you are the second most important person in the executive branch of the world's richest and most powerful nation, a heartbeat away from the big job.

But most vice-presidents find the office a political graveyard. Harry Truman, who was Franklin Roosevelt's vice-president before becoming president himself, said the office was "as much use as a fifth teat on a cow". John Nance Garner, one of Roosevelt's earlier vice-presidents, declared his job "not worth a pitcher of warm spit".

Walter Mondale is an exception. When he was vice president to Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, he played an unusually active part in the administration. After Carter's single term as president, Mondale went on to become the Democratic presidential candidate. He also served as ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1997 and as President Clinton's special envoy to Indonesia last year.

Since 1987, Mondale has been a partner at US firm Dorsey & Whitney, whose roots, like Mondale's, are in the midwestern state of Minnesota.

Mondale was the first vice-president to work from an office next to the Oval Office in the west wing of the White House rather than in the remote east wing, where his predecessors were left to rot.

He insisted on this active role before agreeing to join Carter's presidential campaign.

"We talked about it at the time. He asked me to run with him, and I said: 'If you just want someone in a ceremonial role then please get someone else because I am happy in the Senate. But if I can have a meaningful role in your administration, that is and is seen to be significant, I will do that'. And he said: 'We'll do it'."

Carter, the peanut farmer ex-Governor of Georgia, needed Mondale not just to provide northern liberal balance to his ticket but because, after representing Minnesota in the Senate for 12 years, Mondale was a Washington insider. "I'd lived there, I knew what was going on and I knew the [Capitol] Hill," says Mondale. "I was the first vice-president who got involved and read the same stuff he did and was in all the meetings I wanted to be in."

Mondale, who was born in 1928, has returned to being a lawyer by profession, but was only in private practice for four years before becoming Minnesota's attorney general in 1960.

In 1964 he filled the Senate seat of Minnesota's other great liberal politician, Hubert Humphrey, whose first campaign Mondale had helped manage at the age of 20.

He is now a partner in Dorsey & Whitney's international law division and chairman of the firm's Asian practice group.

Needless to say, after nearly 30 years outside the law the former vice-president's role is not to mount up thousands of billable hours. Instead he is one of the former high-profile politicians who join law firms, adding to the prestige of the firm and offering advice to clients – a common practice in the US.

Others include former governor of New York Mario Cuomo, who is at Wilkie Farr & Gallagher; former secretary of state Casper Weinberger who worked at Rogers & Wells; and Mondale's opponent in the 1984 Democratic primaries, Gary Hart, who is with a Denver firm.

Colin Fergus, of US legal consultants Fergus Consulting, says that firms who take on senior politicians are getting both "access and clout".

"If Walter Mondale were to pick up the phone, I imagine that a lot of people would pick up his call. From a client's point of view, he is someone who can talk to any government agency," says Fergus.

"These people can add real value to a transaction, and you are not talking about fixing parking tickets."

Mondale travelled widely as vice-president, and it is his international connections that have most benefited the firm. This is especially true in Asia, where the contacts and understanding he built up while ambassador to Japan have helped Dorsey & Whitney tap into the Far East.

When asked, Mondale seems reluctant to talk about the business generation side of his work.

"I do some of that," he says. I press him: "How exactly?"

"I don't know…," he pauses, "people call and ask whether our firm can handle a matter. As I travel a lot I run into people who will come up and ask me about that.

"I meet with clients and arrange for teams to work with them on practical problems. Where they are developing a strategy for how to do business in Japan I will sit down with them and talk about that."

He is, perhaps, sensitive to accusations of trading on his government experience. He stresses that he is not involved in any kind of political lobbying, and cites his mission to Indonesia to discuss economic reform last year as an example of the care he takes to avoid conflicts of interest.

"I have to keep those things separated. Whenever you are doing work for the US government, quite properly they insist it should be separate from your private life. We have very severe rules about what someone like me can do in government.

"As a former ambassador I can't do business with any issue I was involved in and I can't deal with the State Department. There are also a lot of ethical rules as a lawyer and I have a strong personal feeling about these, and I am careful not to get these things mixed up."

On the day we meet, Mondale speaks in Birmingham at a dinner held by Dorsey & Whitney for members of the city's British-American chamber of commerce. These include Midlands businessmen as well as lawyers from Wragge & Co, Edge Ellison and Martineau Johnson.

Mondale gives a short speech, joking that Minnesota claims history going back as far as the 19th century. He is, he says, in Birmingham because he has told the firm's London office: "Let's get out and see England."

In fact his appearance in the West Midlands is part of a strategy that sees Dorsey & Whitney playing to its strengths by attracting business from the industrial centres of the countries in which it operates, reflecting its own origins in the US's manufacturing heartland.

Mondale takes questions, ranging from the coming presidential election to the Japanese economy. On these subjects he gives thoughtful, anecdotal answers, but on other subjects, notably the impact of the euro, he brings in Peter Kohl, head of the firm's London office, a useful way of sidestepping less familiar territory while introducing Dorsey & Whitney's London practice to those present.

Sources at Dorsey & Whitney say it is in the Far East that Mondale has been most beneficial to the firm.

Peter Sipkins, the partner accompanying Mondale on his trip, says: "In Seattle we had over 550 people show up for a reception where we only expected half that many. It was due largely to the fact he was there and was prepared to discuss issues relating to Japan, which is of great interest in the west of the US."

At the age of 71 Mondale still spends much of his time travelling on behalf of the firm. "I come here twice a year and go to Asia twice a year," he says. "I am on six corporate boards and we have 18 offices, and I sometimes visit some of them."

But this is a man who campaigned non-stop throughout the US as his party's presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"We would travel into the sun and then fly back again, sleeping on the plane," he says. This was so exhausting that after a few hours each day he became "just a rock", barely knowing where he was. By contrast, Reagan, the master of television, would do just one or two carefully planned appearances a day to make the news broadcasts.

Mondale says Clinton is the best campaigner he has ever seen. "He gains strength as the day goes on. For the first couple of hours you stay out of his way – he can be bitchy. But then he just draws on the response he gets from the people," he says.

Mondale lost the 1984 election in one of the biggest landslides in US history, taking only Minnesota of the 50 states. Former House of Representatives speaker Tip O'Neill writes of that campaign: "In any other year Walter Mondale would have been the ideal Democratic candidate.

"But in 1984, he had the misfortune to be running against an incumbent president with whom the nation was infatuated."

Throughout that long campaign did he ever believe he could beat Reagan? "Just once. In the first [televised] debate he stumbled pretty good. He was not functioning well that night and he gave a befuddled image to the American people. But he got it back in the next debate."

Though he describes himself as "an old, what I would call, Farmer Labour Democrat", Mondale adds: "I guess I am a liberal pragmatist."

"I am still a strong Democrat, but I think we have had to change with the times. One of the fundamental things that has happened in my lifetime is globalisation of the economy, and that changes the appropriateness of policies. Countries have to be competitive and encourage cutting edge technology. Public spending has to be such that you are competitive.

"I'm not sure I have changed, butthe world has changed. And in order to be relevant to that world a lot of us have had to adjust some of the notions that we had before."