Former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale booked two events on a Seattle stop early in his 1984 campaign for the White House, a tony $500-a-person fundraiser and a public rally down at the Emerald City’s Pike Place Market.
The donors were treated to a laid back, lucid, and at times very funny Mondale, and emerged as believers in his presidential bid.
But the public event saw a much more formal Mondale, his speech a succession of oft-repeated lines and bows in the direction of Democratic interest groups.
A distinguished Seattle lawyer, future U.S. District Judge Bill Dwyer, witnessed both events and shook his head at the contrast.
Mondale, dead at ninety-three, showed both those faces during a long, distinguished career in American politics. He could be so stiff as to be given the nickname “Norwegian wood” after the Beatles song, but when laid back with a cigar he could tell stories of his rise in Minnesota politics and blend his humor to underscore his fights for progressive causes.
Call him stiff, but Fritz was also sturdy, a person who could make change happen. He would serve as Minnesota’s attorney general, spend a dozen years in the United States Senate, four years as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, with a later-in-life break to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Japan under President Clinton (to be followed by retired House Speaker Tom Foley).
“When I arrived in the United States Senate in 1973, Walter Mondale was one of the first people to greet me,” said President Joe Biden in a statement.
“Through his work as a Senator, he showed me what was possible.”
“He may have been modest and unassuming in manner, but he was unwavering in his pursuit of progress; instrumental in passing laws like the Fair Housing Act to prevent racial discrimination in housing, Title IX to provide more opportunities for women, and laws to protect our environment. There have been few senators, before or since, who commanded such universal respect.”
“When President Obama asked me to consider being his Vice President, Fritz was my first call and trusted guide. He not only took my call, he wrote me a memo. It was Walter Mondale who defined the vice presidency as a full partnership, and helped provide a model for my service. And Joan did the same for Jill, helping her carve out a role for herself as our nation’s Second Lady.”
“During our administration, Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic policy driven force that had never been seen before and still exists today,” President Carter said in a statement.
Vice President Kamala Harris added her own attestation, and went further, saying: “When he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, Vice President Mondale made a bold and historic choice. He chose Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate – the first woman to be nominated as Vice President on a major party ticket in American history.”
In Mondale’s words, he opened “a new door to the future,” through which Harris — the nation’s first female vice president — passed last November.
As Veep, Mondale set out to redefine the servitude that had characterized his mentor Hubert Humphrey’s relationship to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
LBJ had once kicked Humphrey – hard – in the shins, ordering him to get going on a project. Fritz realized that, as a seasoned D.C. hand, he was a major add-on to a ticket headed by Carter, a former Georgia governor.
He would prove his worth in debate, playing the decent alternative as Republican nominee Bob Dole glowered and snarled about “Democrat wars.”
Mondale insisted in playing the role as collaborator. He broke bread with Carter every week, had daily access to national security briefings, and used his experience in the Senate to help pass the Panama Canal Treaty.
He broke once with Carter but in private, furiously questioning the president’s 1979 speech in which Carter spoke of a “crisis of confidence” in the country.
The so-called “malaise” speech helped define a presidency.
It came as Carter was firing members of his Cabinet, including Transportation Secretary (and former Washington House member) Brock Adams.
Mondale was product of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which entered the national consciousness with Humphrey’s civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. It was a party committed to civil rights, progressive social spending, and sustaining the family farm.
Alas, the DFL would produce sixty years of losing Presidential candidates: Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Mondale, and later Amy Klobuchar.
Fritz had his turn in 1984, barely beating the insurgency of Colorado Senator Gary Hart, only find himself up against Ronald Reagan.
The choice of Ferraro electrified the party. But the vice presidential nominee became immersed in controversy over her husband’s business finances.
Nor did Mondale help his chances with this line from his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech: “Let’s tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Way behind in the polls, he put aside attack politics in favor of an upbeat respectful message in his first debate with the Gipper.
Reagan was caught off guard and delivered a rambling performance in which he seemingly could not find the “city on a hill.” The Wall Street Journal wondered in a lead story whether the 73-year-old president was still up to the job.
The political cartoonist Pat Oliphant depicted Mondale as a David figure with a slingshot, standing beside a dazed Reagan and saying: “Gee!”
In the second go-round, however, Reagan had a game-deciding one-liner: “I want you to know that also 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 was fifty-six.) The Gipper would win forty-nine states, with Mondale only carrying his native Minnesota (by 3,500 votes) and the District of Columbia.
As an elder statesman, however, Mondale was an ideal Ambassador to Japan. He, and Foley after him, dealt with the sensitive issue of a large American troop presence on Okinawa, and publicized sexual assault cases involving U.S. servicemembers.
When Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in an air crash, Mondale stepped in as Senate candidate in 2002, but lost to Republican Norm Coleman. Fritz was actually done in by raucous Wellstone supporters, who booed and jeered Republican congressional leaders who showed up for a public memorial service.
Minnesota, the early citadel of civil rights, is today on edge, the consequence of two killings of Black men by police in the Twin Cities. Downtown Minneapolis is boarded up as a jury deliberates the fate of the police officer who held his knee to George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. The progressivism of the North Star State is being questioned in the national news media.
The progressivism of Fritz Mondale arguably wavered only once, when he delayed coming out against the Vietnam War until the Johnson-Humphrey administration left office. Otherwise, he was a champion of social justice and social services, as was his late wife Joan Mondale, who died in 2014.
His legacy is best summed up by Al Gore, who once spoke of an historical divide in the American vice presidency: before Walter Mondale and after Walter Mondale.