Walter Mondale speaking
Walter Mondale delivers a speech during a visit to the Netherlands in 1979, while serving as Jimmy Carter's vice president (Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo)

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.

Vice Presidents Walter Mondale and Joe Biden
Vice Pres­i­dents Wal­ter Mon­dale and Joe Biden togeth­er in Min­neso­ta. Both would lat­er become the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s pres­i­den­tial stan­dard bear­er, almost forty years apart. (Pho­to: Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden’s office)

“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.

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale
Jim­my Carter and Wal­ter Mon­dale at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, New York City on on July 15th, 1976 (Pho­to: War­ren K. Leffler)

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.

Walter Mondale speaking
Wal­ter Mon­dale deliv­ers a speech dur­ing a vis­it to the Nether­lands in 1979, while serv­ing as Jim­my Carter’s vice pres­i­dent (Pho­to: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo)

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.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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