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Walter Mondale, Minnesota liberal who transformed vice presidency, dies at 93

Great Lakes icon was Jimmy Carter’s vice president

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, seen here at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2018, has died at age 93.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, seen here at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2018, has died at age 93. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, an unapologetic Senate liberal whose White House aspirations were shattered in an epic landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, died on Monday at the age of 93.

The arc of Mondale’s career extended from service as a campaign foot soldier in the precinct politics of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party in the late 1940s to the state attorney general’s office in 1960, followed by a dozen years in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1964. Elected as Jimmy Carter’s vice president in 1976, Mondale served a single term that ended when Reagan seized the White House four years later.

Nominated in 1984 by the Democratic National Convention to recapture the presidency in that fall’s general election, Mondale made history by picking the first woman — Geraldine Ferraro —  to join a major party’s national ticket as his vice presidential running mate.

But the pair never gained serious traction against the popular Reagan, whose reelection victory was powered by a strong economic recovery from years of demoralizing stagflation.

Mondale’s selection of Ferraro was not his only unconventional decision as the campaign took shape. He startled the convention — and the country — by promising in his acceptance speech to raise taxes in order to fund his liberal program and to narrow the federal deficit.

It may have been a brave stoke of candor, but politically it almost certainly contributed to the dimensions of his defeat by seeming to validate the Republican claim that he was the ultimate tax-and-spend liberal

Arriving in the Senate just as the Great Society was gaining momentum, Mondale consistently posted perfect or near perfect vote ratings by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and the AFL-CIO’s political arm. CQ vote studies routinely placed Mondale among President Lyndon B. Johnson’s most steadfast Senate allies.

Initially, that included unwavering support for Johnson’s Vietnam War policies. But he backed the war with little enthusiasm and mainly out of loyalty to his Minnesota mentor, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

Humphrey’s narrow loss to Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election freed Mondale to vent growing doubts and to join the antiwar ranks in the Senate.

Years later, Mondale would call his support of the war the worst mistake of his career.

On the plus side of the legislative ledger, Mondale in 1968 achieved a major legislative milestone as an author of a landmark open housing bill, banning discrimination in the sale or leasing of housing. The measure was incorporated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He and Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin also teamed up that year to pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was signed into law by Johnson.

Three years later, Mondale won congressional passage of the Child Development Act of 1971, which would have established day-care centers for the children of working mothers. The measure was vetoed by Nixon.

In 1975, Mondale played a key role in the first successful effort in the Senate to curb filibusters since adoption of the cloture rule 58 years earlier. He also supported busing for the purposes of school desegregation, and won federal funding for research into sudden infant death syndrome and for the prevention and treatment of child abuse.

But liberals were disappointed when he declined to use a seat on the Senate Finance Committee to buck the panel’s powerful chairman, Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana, by leading the fight against tax preferences for the wealthy. Shrugging off his critics, Mondale told a reporter that he had little interest in being a “kamikaze pilot.”

Named in 1975 to a Senate select committee formed to investigate revelations of abuses by the nation’s intelligence agencies, Mondale emerged as the de facto leader of the panel when its chairman, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, decided to run for president in 1976.

When the Carter administration assumed power in 1977, the new president signed off on a memo crafted by Mondale’s chief of staff, Richard Moe, offering an expansive outline of the vice president’s role. Carter’s enthusiastic embrace of the plan assured that Mondale would become the most influential vice president in history up to that point. 

Virtually every subsequent administration adopted the model created by Carter and Mondale, endowing the modern vice president with power and influence beyond anything imagined by earlier occupants of that office.

Mondale’s experience in the Senate and his network of friends on both sides of the aisle proved useful to the outsiders in the Carter White House, as he leveraged those assets to gather bipartisan support for the politically volatile ratification of the Panama Canal treaties.

He also used his expertise acquired from the Church committee’s investigation to help shape the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which created a process of judicial review of most efforts by the domestic intelligence agencies to gather foreign intelligence in the United States.

In foreign policy, Mondale was credited with having helped to advance the peace process in the Middle East, pressuring South Africa to abandon apartheid, focusing international attention on the plight of political refugees from Vietnam and promoting the normalization of relations with China.

Joel K. Goldstein, an authority on the vice presidency and a law professor at University of St. Louis School of Law, told CQ Roll Call that Mondale’s “unique mix of talents” won him “access and  influence to advocate for the progressive commitments of a lifetime, and his example as vice-president offered a new model that subsequent administrations of both parties imitated.”

Despite his success in reinventing the vice presidency, Mondale found himself at odds with the Carter administration’s conservative fiscal policies and torn by the 1980 presidential primary challenge mounted by his Senate ally, Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Compounding Mondale’s discomfort was what he considered the president’s over-wrought speech in 1979 telling the nation it was suffering “a crisis of confidence” as it attempted to cope with a prolonged energy shortage and long lines at the gasoline pumps.

The speech was followed by a sweeping Cabinet shakeup that Mondale regarded as ill advised.

Alarmed by the apparent unraveling of the Carter presidency, Mondale at that point even considered resigning, according to a book published in 1992 by  Steven M. Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma.

However, in a 2015 interview with CQ Roll Call, Mondale said that was never a serious option, adding, “Once in a while I would talk  — I would  feel sorry for myself  but I never meant it.”

“In the end, I think he was just venting,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, who had been taken into Mondale’s confidence. “He knew it would be the end of the administration and of his political ambitions, but it was symbolic of how concerned he was about the situation.”

At a 2015 dinner in Washington, honoring his former vice president, Carter said, “[Mondale]  was a perfect partner. And I don’t think we ever had a serious argument during the four years, which is better than the relationship between me and my wife.”

After briefly entertaining and then abandoning a presidential candidacy during the 1976 election cycle, Mondale began plotting a campaign to reclaim the White House almost from the moment Carter conceded to Reagan on election night 1980.

Mondale’s stance as the presumptive Democratic nominee did not survive an early upset at the hands of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado in the New Hampshire primary, when Hart derided him as the candidate of “old ideas.”

Struggling to salvage his candidacy, Mondale fought back, surprising his critics who had questioned whether he had the stomach for political combat. Turning the tables on Hart, Mondale attacked his more youthful opponents as espousing empty rhetoric instead of new ideas. Seizing on the slogan of a popular hamburger chain, Mondale wondered, “Where’s the beef?”

The fight lasted lasted almost until the eve of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, which launched him into the general election against Reagan, battered and weary.

His political career seemingly at an end after his loss to Reagan, Mondale returned to Minneapolis to practice law with the prestigious Dorsey & Whitney law firm, only to reenter public service in late 1993 as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Japan — a post he held until late 1996.

His venture into global diplomacy behind him, Mondale allowed himself to be pressed back into electoral politics when Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 10 days before the 2002 election. An early lead over Republican challenger Norm Coleman evaporated in the campaign’s final days after a memorial service for Wellstone, televised throughout Minnesota, became a DFL pep rally, offending thousands of independent voters.

Coleman won, narrowly.

Defeat sent Mondale back to the Dorsey firm as senior counsel and to an association with the Humphrey School  of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, which had awarded him both his undergraduate and law school degrees.

Born Jan. 5, 1928 in the tiny southern Minnesota town of Ceylon, Walter Frederick Mondale grew up in the slightly larger neighboring community of Elmore. Mondale’s family roots on his father’s side reached into the rocky soil of Mundal, Norway, while Claribel, his mother was of Scottish descent.

With the family’s already meager finances straitened by the Great Depression, Claribel Mondale  helped make ends meet with piano lessons in their modest parlor.

On Sundays, his father, Theodore, preached a liberal version of the social gospel from the pulpit of the local Methodist church, railing against corporate power and concentrated wealth.

Mondale attended Macalester College before transferring to the University of Minnesota where he graduated with honors in 1950. Along the way, he made a favorable impression on Humphrey and other senior state Democrats as a political organizer and activist in the DFL organization — an affiliate of the national Democratic Party.

After a stint in the U.S. Army as a draftee, Mondale enrolled in the university’s law school and went on to practice law.  Meanwhile, his involvement in DFL politics deepened, as he seized the opportunity to manage Gov. Orville Freeman’s successful 1958 re-election campaign.

Two years later Freeman appointed him attorney general after the incumbent, Miles Lord, resigned in a huff because the governor had declined to appoint him to a vacancy on the state supreme court.

Naturally reserved, Mondale came of age politically in the pre-television era and remained often ill at ease in front of  cameras. But he could also be animated and even passionate on the stump, particularly when appearing in union halls or on college campuses.

He also possessed a puckish, self-deprecatory wit that leavened an occasionally dour public image described by his friends as his “full Norwegian” style.

Once, during the 1976 vice presidential campaign, Mondale droned on during a policy speech to a small business audience in Florida.

Asked afterward by a reporter to assess the talk, Mondale said, “Don’t know. I fell asleep half way through.”

Mondale is survived by two sons, Theodore and William; four grandchildren, and a brother, William “Mort” Mondale of Grants Pass, Ore. His wife of 58 years, Joan, a passionate arts and crafts advocate during the Carter presidency, died in 2014. Their daughter, Eleanor, succumbed to brain cancer in 2011.

In what sounded at the time as an epitaph to his career as a public servant, Mondale told the Minneapolis Star Tribune during the 1984 race, “I think that, in this campaign, I’m the trustee of what I think is very important — if not sacred — and that is the tradition of generosity in American public life.”

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