Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Judith H. "Judy" Whittlesey, July 7, 2018

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Personal background and career

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Partial Transcript: Okay, this is an oral history interview with Judy Whittlesey, a former colleague of Bess Abell's on the staff of Joan Mondale, the wife of Vice President Walter Mondale.

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey discusses her family background and early career in the federal government and public relations.

Keywords: Boutique public relations firm; Centennial; Clients; Corporate; Democrats; FDR Memorial (Washington, D.C.); Federal institutions; Government agencies; Husband; Inner-city; Interesting; Joan Mondale; Job offer; Journalist; Junior high school; Law school; Moving; Petroleum engineer; Public affairs officer; Southwest; Susan Davis International (SDI); U.S. Navy; Upbringing; WWI Commission; WWII Memorial (Washington, D.C.)

Subjects: Career; Children; Denver (Colo.); Father; Federal government; Georgetown University; Interest; Japan; Liberal; Marriage; Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial (Washington, D.C.); Mother; National Museum of the Marine Corps; Oil; Oklahoma; Politicians; Public relations; Quantico (Va.); Sisters; Teaching; Texas; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; United States. Department of Justice; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:02:48 - Meeting Bess Abell / Structure of Second Lady's office

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Partial Transcript: So, um, tell us how you and Bess Abell hooked up.

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey recalls when she first met Bess Abell when they both worked in Second Lady Joan Mondale's office. Whittlesey characterizes what the structure of a second lady's office is typically like.

Keywords: Beginning; Bess Abell; Campaign; Eager; Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Expected; House; Interested; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Lady Bird Johnson; Limited resources; Mission; Personnel; Return; Second lady; Senate staff; Sister; Small; Supplement; Symbolic; Thrilled; Tipper Gore; Vice president's residence; Walter Mondale

Subjects: Children; Federal government; Growth; Mondale family; Pioneers; Politicians; Rockefeller family; Spring Valley (Washington, D.C.); Staff; Time; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:05:43 - Work in Joan Mondale's office

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Partial Transcript: So what--when you were coming in just one--one day a week you say, uh, what were you doing?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey describes her work in Joan Mondale's office, both as a volunteer and later as a full-time staff member.

Keywords: Advance trip; Assistant; Baby; Bess Abell; Bookshelves; Challenging; Community; Constituents; Created; End; Fantastic; Followed; Full time; Interests; Joan Mondale; Joined; Meeting people; Never returned; Political trip; Problematic; Projects; Second lady; Vice president's residence; Vice presidential library

Subjects: Correspondence; Culture; Iowa; Leaders; Legacy; Letters; Museums; Politicians; Research; Rooms; Spark; Staff; Washington (D.C.)

00:07:28 - First impressions of Bess Abell

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Partial Transcript: So going back to those first days, what was your impression of--of Bess Abell?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey recalls her initial impressions of Bess.

Keywords: Bess Abell; Broad; Connections; Creative; Deep; Familiar; Joan Mondale; Johnson administration; Lifestyle writing; Limited; Network; New; Opportunities; Rare; Realization; Stories; Wide; Wonderful

Subjects: Journalists; Life; People; Politicians; Social; Time; Washington (D.C.); Women; Women in journalism

00:08:56 - Joan Mondale and Bess Abell working together

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Partial Transcript: So how did their, uh, team evolve? How did Joan and Bess work? What was the arrangement like?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey discusses what the working relationship between Bess Abell and Joan Mondale was like.

Keywords: 1984 presidential campaign; Accomplishments; Activities; Beginning; Bess Abell; Campaign; Civilian life; Continue; Established; Function; General election; Gretchen Poston; Groundbreaking; House; Important; Integrate; Involved; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Learned; Local; Make a difference; Met; Michael Berman; Mission; Moving; No office; Office; Official functions; Old Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Plans; Pottery classes; Precedent; Priorities; Public service; Respectful; Schedule; Second lady; Setup; Social secretary; Stories; Support; Tennis partners; Under supported; Vegetable co-op; Vice president's residence

Subjects: Art; Change; Cleveland Park (Washington, D.C.); Communities; Craft and art; Friend; Glass ceiling (Employment discrimination); Interest; Meeting; Politicians; Popularity; Pottery; Satisfaction; Time; Travel; United States; Vice-presidents; Washington (D.C.); Wives

00:13:32 - Office atmosphere / Mondale children

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Partial Transcript: So, just in terms of mood, what kind of an atmosphere did Bess create...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey considers the office atmosphere that Bess Abell cultivated. Whittlesey talks of her involvement with the Mondale children through work.

Keywords: Activities; Bess Abell; Damage control; Eleanor Mondale; Energetic; Fun; Horse riding; Interesting; Joan Mondale; Law school; Plans; Politics; Present; Second lady; Sensitive; Theodore Mondale; Thoughtful; Typical; University; Visit; Well-done; William Mondale

Subjects: Children; Enthusiasm; Family life; High school; Parents; People; Planning; Politicians; St Albans School; St. Lawrence University; Staff; Teenagers; Travel; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:15:47 - Working with Carter staff

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Partial Transcript: So, how did you all mesh with the Carters?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey evaluates how well the respective staffs of Joan Mondale and Jimmy Carter worked together.

Keywords: 1976 presidential campaign; Activities; Additions; Bess Abell; Day-to-day operations; Gretchen Poston; Guest lists; Guests; Ideas; Inclusive; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Political; Rosalynn Carter; Social secretary; Staffs; State dinners; Strategic; Suggestions; Thoughtful; Vice president; White House

Subjects: Cooperation; Experience; Friend; Politicians; Travel; Washington (D.C.); Wisdom

00:17:30 - Trip to Iowa

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Partial Transcript: What about travel? You--you mentioned, uh, before we started, going out to Iowa.

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey discusses her trip to Iowa to assist the Carter campaign with the preparations for the Iowa caucuses in 1980.

Keywords: 1980 presidential campaign; Accomplishments; Achievements; Adept; Advance trip; Bess Abell; Busy; Campaign; Community; Connections; Constituencies; Constituency; Convincing; Des Moines Art Museum; Development; Divide; Exposure; Full-time staff member; Guidance; Idea; Interesting; Iowa caucuses; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Law school; Leave; Match; Nice; Opportunities; Political goals; Politics; Primary; Rosalynn Carter; Schedule; Separate; Sister; Ted Kennedy; Thankful; Visit; Voting

Subjects: Ability; Advice; Art; Artists; Career; Confidence; Des Moines (Iowa); Iowa; Learning; November; People; Personality; Politicians; Public relations; Travel; Washington (D.C.); Waterloo (Iowa); Winter; Women; Work

00:22:01 - International travel

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Partial Transcript: What about other travel? Did you do some of the international travel with--with Joan?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey briefly discusses a trip she took to the Ivory Coast, Niger, and Nigeria in 1980 on behalf of the Carter administration.

Keywords: 1980 Republican National Convention; Abidjan (Ivory Coast); Advance teams; Bess Abell; Challenging; Election; Fascinating; First choice; Ivory Coast; Places; Tour; Walter Mondale

Subjects: Africa; Côte d'Ivoire; Detroit (Michigan); Lagos (Nigeria); Niamey (Niger); Nigeria; Politicians; Summer; Travel

00:23:21 - Transition period after Carter presidency

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Partial Transcript: And when the Mondales went back to Minnesota?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey describes what the transition period was like between the Carter administration and the Reagan presidency.

Keywords: 1984 presidential election; Accomplishments; Activities; After; Agitated; Agreed; Appointed; Arrangements; Bess Abell; Carter administration; Celebrations; Closeout; Continued; Effort; Encouraging; End; Events; Funeral; Hard work; Honorary chair; House; Important; Interesting; Interview; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Jobs; Lafayette Square (Washington, D.C.); Lowell St. NW (Washington, D.C.); Official; Oversight; Percent for art; Policy; Ronald Reagan; Sad; Shot; Stayed; Talking; Townhouse; Transition Office; Transition period; Transition team; Typical; Vice president

Subjects: Administration; Archives; Art; Design; Employees; Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities; Federal government; Joking; Management; Middle East; Minnesota; Mood; Notes; Planning; Politicians; Programs; Records; Secret service; Speech; Staff; Time; United States; United States. General Services Administration; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:28:07 - Role of Bess Abell in promoting the arts

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Partial Transcript: So you were saying that--(clears throat)--Bess was the driving force of the Joan of Art, uh, movement?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey articulates Bess Abell's role in promoting the arts in the U.S. with Joan Mondale.

Keywords: Accomplished; Achievements; Adept; After; Art collection; Arts advisor; Arts community; Attention; Awareness; Beginning; Bess Abell; Big picture; Brochure; Cabinet portraits; Campaign; Ceramic piece; Community; Contemporary sculpture; Contributions; Coordination; Curation; Curator; Decision; Designation; Dinner parties; Direct links; Display; Driveway; Effort; Election; Encourage; Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Experts; Familiar; Favorite; Goals; Government agencies; Grateful; Groups; Head; Help; Idea; Impact; Important; Information; Interested; Introduction; Involved; Joan Mondale; Joan of Art; Lunch; Media; Michael Berman; Nickname; Note; Official residents; Otto Natzler; Package; Photographers as artists; Political skills; Position; Reception; Regions; Representation; Requests; Selected; Senate wife; Small; Spotlight; Vice president's residence; Victorian architecture

Subjects: Administration; Art; Artists; Communities; Craft and art; Design; Experience; Federal government; Glazes; Good; Interest; Knowledge; Lobbying; Mail; Museums; National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution); People; Photographers; Politicians; Renwick Gallery; Rock Creek Cemetery (Washington, D.C.); San Andreas Fault (Calif.); San Francisco (Calif.); Sculpture; Staff; Strategy; Time; Tours; Understanding; United States

00:36:45 - Bess Abell and key events / 1980 Summer Olympics

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Partial Transcript: And you know, there were other kinds of things...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey evaluates the major role that Bess played in key events at the Carter White House. Whittlesey briefly talks of the United States and its decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Keywords: 1980 Summer Olympics; Advance trip; Beautiful; Bess Abell; Cancelled; Carter administration; Dress; Easter party; Events; Experts; Gathering; Head; Interested; Introduce; Joan Mondale; Joan Mondale tulip; Lawn; Representative; Sports event; Vice president's residence; White House

Subjects: Afghanistan; Art; Color; Easter Bunny; First ladies; Gardeners; Inspiration; Knowledge; Olympics; Pictures; Pink; Politicians; Roses; Soviet Union; Sports; Staff; Tennis; United States Botanic Garden; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:39:53 - 1980 presidential campaign

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Partial Transcript: So, you on the staff didn't have any role to play in the '80 campaign, would that be correct?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey recalls the logistics of President Carter's 1980 presidential campaign.

Keywords: Active; Advance team; Appreciative; Arrival; Assigned; Bess Abell; Campaign trail; Coordination; Departure; Involved; Joan Mondale; Respectful; Role; Second lady; Secret Service detail; Vice president

Subjects: Caring; Experience; Knowledge; Mondale family; People; Politicians; Secret service; Staff; Travel; Washington (D.C.)

00:42:12 - Impact of political issues / Closeness between Bess Abell and Joan Mondale

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Partial Transcript: What about the impact of some of the big issues during the Carter administration...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey assesses the impact of political issues on the work of Joan Mondale's staff. Whittlesey considers how close Bess was to Joan Mondale.

Keywords: Bess Abell; Confidant; Conservation; Informal; Intertwined; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Knew; No change; Talking; Title; Together; Unsuccessful

Subjects: Politicians; Secrets; Travel; Trust; Washington (D.C.)

00:44:34 - Work for the Mondales after vice presidency

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Partial Transcript: So, you came back to work with the Mondales in '84, is that correct?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey talks of her work for the Mondales following their tenure as vice president and second lady.

Keywords: Activities; After; Aligned; Bess Abell; Campaign; Cultivated; Development; Different; Dramatic; Established; Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Goals; Gone; Independent campaign; Involved; Joan Mondale; Joined; Leaving; Orders; Packing; Political action committee; Role; Speaker's bureau; Stayed; Transition; Vice president

Subjects: Freedom; Legacy; Politicians; Speechwriting; Summer; Travel; Washington (D.C.); Winter

00:47:02 - Life after 1984 presidential election

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Partial Transcript: Um, what about after the sad election and so forth...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey discusses her life after Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign.

Keywords: 1984 presidential campaign; Appointed; Bess Abell; Board; Busy; Continued; Demanding; Eleanor Mondale; Enjoyed; Force; Gathered; Horse; Ideas; Joan Mondale; Lunch; Merry-Go-Round Farm; New career; Selection; Special moments; Together

Subjects: Ability; Interest; People; Politicians; Seabiscuit (Race horse); Staff; Stamps; Washington (D.C.)

00:48:37 - Joan Mondale's final years / Joan Mondale's funerals

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Partial Transcript: So, what were the circumstances of your last contacts with Joan?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey details her contact with Joan Mondale in her final years. Whittlesey recalls the speeches that Bess Abell gave at Joan Mondale's two funerals in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.

Keywords: Alzheimer disease; Barack Obama; Beginning; Bess Abell; Birthday; Birthday dinner; Broadcasted; C-SPAN; CCTV; Crowds; Elected; Eulogy; Funerals; Gathering; Good job; Good speech; Great; Hilarious; Illness; Jimmy Carter; Joan Mondale; Laughing; Motivation; Reaction; Recording; Sense of humor; Stories; Tape; Visiting; Walter Mondale; Warmth

Subjects: American University; August; Church; Death; February; Inauguration; Memories; Minneapolis (Minn.); Parkinson's disease; Politicians; Sisters; Speeches; Time; Washington (D.C.)

00:52:40 - Bess Abell in Joan Mondale's office / Bess Abell as a speaker

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Partial Transcript: Was that part of your office routine too? I mean she'd bring that kind of levity to--to matters in an office?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey details what kind of work environment Bess cultivated in Joan Mondale's office. Bess' speaking ability is also mentioned.

Keywords: Activities; Appropriate; Bess Abell; Busy; Enjoyable; Entertaining; Environment; Fun; Good time; Joan Mondale; Levity; National Women’s Democratic Club; Office; Opportunities; Sense of humor; Vice president's residence; Work together

Subjects: Death; People; Politicians; Respect; Speeches; Washington (D.C.); Work

00:55:24 - Office decorations / Joan Mondale's staff

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Partial Transcript: What about the decoration of your offices in the EOB [Executive Office Building]?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey briefly recalls Bess Abell's role in decorating the offices of Joan Mondale at the Old Executive Office Building. Whittlesey also discusses the lives of former Joan Mondale staffers.

Keywords: Arts advisor; Baby; Bess Abell; Cherokee alphabet; Colorful; Consulting firm; Contact; Designer; Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Husband; Ideas; In touch; Joan Mondale; Layout; Moving; Never returned; Office; Resources; Scarf; Small; Sterile; Warmth

Subjects: Chevy Chase (Md.); Democratic National Committee (U.S.); Desks; Doors; Education; Email; Florida; George Washington University; Green; People; Personality; Politicians; Professor; Retirement; Space; Staff; Volunteer; Washington (D.C.); White; Windows; Work

00:59:50 - Second lady transition / Assistance of Bess Abell to Joan Mondale

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Partial Transcript: So, what was the handoff like, uh, going from Joan Mondale to Barbara Bush?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey reflects upon the role of Bess Abell in the transition period between Joan Mondale and Barbara Bush for the position of second lady. Whittlesey explains how Bess has helped Joan Mondale over the years.

Keywords: Alumni; American designer; Appropriate; Assignments; Barbara Bush; Bess Abell; Cards; Closed; Clothing; Clothing designers; Connections; Eleanor Brenner; Friends; Gloria Sachs; Gracious; Healthy; Heart condition; Help; Helpful; House; Husband; Joan Mondale; Ladylike; Lunch; Not involved; Official; Public role; Right fit; Roots; Second lady; Sources; Transition; Unprecedented

Subjects: Cooking; Experience; Friendship; Georgetown (Washington, D.C.); Macalester College; Minnesota; New York (N.Y.); People; Personality; Politicians; Speeches; Successful; Washington (D.C.); Work

01:03:36 - Vice president's residence furniture

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Partial Transcript: And I guess one other thing that I haven't talked about, uh, that was so interesting...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey talks of Joan Mondale's idea to furnish the vice president's residence with pieces made by American craft artists.

Keywords: Art collection; Beautiful; Bess Abell; Crafts; Craftspeople; Custom; Dishes; Eye; Glass artist; Help; Joan Mondale; John Glick; Margaretta Large "Happy" Rockefeller; Michael Berman; Mission; Movement; Plates; Politics; Potter; Reinforced; Rotating art collections; Second lady; Senate; Stories; Support; Transition; Vice president; Vice president's residence; Walter Mondale; Woven placemats

Subjects: Artists; Ceramics; Crafts & decorating; Genius; Glass; Goblets; People; Politicians; Public relations; Rockefeller family; Staff; Table; Unique; United States; Washington (D.C.)

01:06:53 - Gratitude to Bess Abell

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Partial Transcript: What, uh, what--what do you personally owe to--to Bess?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey expresses her gratitude to Bess Abell for helping to establish her career in public relations.

Keywords: Abilities; Aspirations; Attention; Atypical; Bess Abell; Civilization of politics; Degree; Elementary school; Environment; Friends; Fun; Idyllic; Inclusive; Interesting; Launch; Loved; Master's degree; Merry-Go-Round-Farm; Never asked; No career preparation; Playing; Recognition; Resource; Retrospect; Rewarding; School; Scrub; Sister; Son; Thankful; Uncivilized

Subjects: Behavior; Career; Childhood; Children; Education; English literature; Girls; Gratitude; Literacy; Memories; Nursing; Opportunity; Poison ivy; Politicians; Prisoners; Professional; Psychology; Public relations; Reading; Soap; Spirit; Teaching; Washington (D.C.); Women; Work

01:10:31 - Social circle of Bess Abell and Joan Mondale

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Partial Transcript: The potter that I remember--(clears throat)--Bess talking about...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey talks of how the social circles of Bess Abell and Joan Mondale in Washington D.C. frequently intersected.

Keywords: Bess Abell; Gretchen Poston; Joan Mondale; Local; Pottery classes; Pottery teacher; Pottery wheel; Protected; Scheduled; Study; Tennis partners; Vegetable co-op

Subjects: Behavior; Death; Friendship; Gardening; Politicians; Pottery; Social; Tennis; Vegetables; Washington (D.C.)

01:13:51 - Bess Abell's title / Executive Office Building

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Partial Transcript: What was Bess' official title?

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey considers what Bess' official title was in the office of Joan Mondale. Whittlesey discusses the renovations that have been done to the Executive Office Building since the Carter administration.

Keywords: Beautiful; Bess Abell; Better; Chief of staff; East side; Executive Office Building (Washington, D.C.); Gloomy; Hallways; Joan Mondale; Renovations; Restoration; Second floor; Second lady; Today; Vice president; White House

Subjects: Bright; Building; Colors; Dark; Politicians; Washington (D.C.)

01:15:29 - People to interview / U.S. Botanic Garden and U.S. National Arboretum

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Partial Transcript: Thank you very much.

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey provides a list of potential people to interview for this project. Whittlesey also discusses Bess Abell's involvement in assisting the ailing National Arboretum as well as the more popular and centrally-located United States Botanic Garden near the U.S. Capitol Building.

Keywords: Beautiful; Bess Abell; Board list; Board of directors; Bonsai trees; Campaign; Cokie Roberts; Collections; Community; Connected; Connections; Dinner; Driving; Fundraising; Garden party; Greater support; Greenhouse; Head gardener; Help; Hot; Humid; Inaccessible; Interactions; Involved; Joan Mondale; Lady Bird Johnson; Leader; Lindy Boggs; Location; Need; Northeast Washington D.C.; Places; Present; Spotlight; State delegation; Support; Talking; U.S. Capitol Complex (Washington, D.C.); Vice president's residence; Visiting; Women's stories

Subjects: Columns; Food; Interest; Japan; Learning; Maine; Mondale family; Names; National Arboretum (U.S.); Neighbors; Parties; People; Photography; Politicians; Retirement; States; Successful; United States Botanic Garden; Washington (D.C.); Women; Work

01:23:24 - Secret Service agents

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember, by any chance a Secret Service agent...

Segment Synopsis: Whittlesey briefly talks of the role of Secret Service agents in supporting Bess Abell and the Mondales.

Keywords: Agencies; Appreciative; Bess Abell; Campaigns; Good relationship; Great; Head; Inspector general; Joan Mondale; Law school; Lloyd Bentsen; Lyndon Johnson; Michael Dukakis; Nice; Office; Second lady; Secret Service detail; Vice president; Walter Mondale

Subjects: Federal government; People; Politicians; Secret service; Washington (D.C.)