In the many years since he left Washington, it seemed that whenever I called the Mondale residence in Minnesota, the former vice president was always out walking the dogs. Those daily excursions gave so much pleasure to Walter Mondale that his former speechwriter, Marty Kaplan, said it wasn’t always clear who was walking whom.
A New Deal and labor liberal, Mondale, who died Monday at age 93, had an old-fashioned view of politics as public service, and he was never at home in the personality-driven television age that he was thrust into. He didn’t make it to the most powerful office, losing 49 states in 1984 to Ronald Reagan, but in his quiet and modest way he left a legacy that endures beyond that electoral defeat in the way he reshaped the vice presidency from a fifth wheel of government into a job that would no longer be the butt of jokes.
Mondale wasn’t sure he wanted the vice presidency when Jimmy Carter was searching for a running mate in 1976. He was at the peak of his power in the Senate, having just led the floor fight to successfully bring down the number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 67 to 60. As the protégé of fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, whose Senate seat he had filled when Humphrey became vice president under Lyndon Johnson, Mondale was the leader of the Democrats’ liberal wing and a strong civil-rights advocate. Reluctant to trade his independent platform for a subservient position, and knowing how badly LBJ had treated Humphrey, Mondale was surprised when his mentor urged him to take the job with the caveat: “Don’t make the mistakes I made.”
Mondale was a natural to balance the ticket with the more conservative Carter, and when they met for the first time in Plains, Georgia, Mondale found his vision for a substantive role meshed with Carter’s wish to have a governing partner. Both men saw the potential of the office, and so “Grits and Fritz” became a team. Al Eisele, then a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and later Mondale’s press secretary, recalls how Mondale didn’t touch the grits served him that morning for breakfast, but when reporters greeted him in Plains and asked if he liked grits, he rose to the occasion, beaming, “Just had ’em for breakfast—love ’em!”
That was about as Machiavellian as Mondale got. Through the four years of the Carter presidency when he worked to keep the lines of communication open to Democratic interest groups, liberals on Capitol Hill, and Georgetown dinner party hostesses, all disgruntled with Carter and the Georgians, Mondale may have been guilty of an occasional eye roll, but he was never disloyal. His 11-page memo to Carter outlining his duties as a top-level adviser and troubleshooter became the template for future vice presidents. Carter gave him an office in the West Wing, the first vice president to receive such prized real estate.
Mondale was an old-school politician, reserved in public and uneasy on television. He lacked the fire in the belly that Humphrey and others had, and his first attempt to run for president ended in 1974 when he wasn’t getting anywhere in the polls and said he didn’t want to spend the next two years sleeping in Holiday Inns. In 1984, his top-heavy, corporate-style campaign faltered when Gary Hart, running on a platform of new ideas, beat him in New Hampshire. Mondale had never seen the Wendy’s commercial when campaign manager Bob Beckel suggested borrowing the line “Where’s the beef?” to ridicule Hart as a lightweight.
The ploy worked, ending Hart’s surge and securing the nomination, but countering the popular Reagan in a time of peace and prosperity required a miracle. Mondale did the best he could short of divine intervention. He named the first woman to a major party ticket, New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and at the Democratic convention he declared, “Let’s tell the truth… Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” When the 73-year-old Reagan stumbled in the first of their two debates, there was a brief flurry when it looked like Mondale had a chance, but Reagan rebounded in the second debate by quipping, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Mondale lost in a landslide of such grand dimension that friends say he didn’t take it personally and go into a funk. It was “morning in America” for the Reagan campaign, and their internal memos revealed how they had cast Reagan as the personification of all that is right with America, “leaving Mondale in the position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America’s idealized image of itself.” Only Minnesota supported its native son.
Mondale epitomized the New Deal liberal politics that had sustained the Democrats for 40 years. His defeat in 1984 was the catalyst for the Democratic Party to change direction and figure out how to become relevant again. When Bill Clinton was elected president nearly a decade later, he named Mondale as ambassador to Japan, a plum assignment and an important one given rising tensions over trade. In a position where his experience and knowledge were valued, friends say Mondale achieved an enviable equilibrium in his later public life.
In 2002, Mondale was drafted to fill in for Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died tragically in a plane crash 11 days before the election. Mondale had been away from politics for two decades, and nostalgia was not enough to take him across the finish line. His narrow loss made him the only man in American politics defeated by the voters in all 50 states. A lesser man might have found that a burden. To Mondale, it was all part of being in the arena, and he was grateful for that, along with his place in history for transforming the vice presidency.