How Walter Mondale transformed the vice presidency

Jonathan Alter
·Contributor
·5 min read
Candidate for president Walter Mondale on the campaign trail at San Jose State University September 4, 1984.  (Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Walter Mondale at San Jose State University in 1984 during his campaign for the presidency. (Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

After Walter Mondale got creamed by Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, he ran into George McGovern, who had lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide 12 years earlier. “How long does it take to get over this?” Mondale asked. McGovern replied, “I’ll let you know.”

“Fritz” Mondale loved telling that story, and his self-deprecating wit made him a beloved figure in the Democratic Party. History is hard on losers, but even before he died Monday at the age of 93, the onetime boy wonder of Minnesota politics began achieving at least a modest form of vindication. His brand of compassionate, pro-union, expansive liberalism is back in fashion. And the George Floyd case in his hometown reminds us of his pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

Throughout his career, Mondale was always a pragmatist. In the summer of 2019, we chatted at a Virginia event for the Carter Center, Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential organization. At the time, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (a former Mondale intern) and former Vice President Joe Biden were trailing more progressive candidates.

Mondale strongly backed Klobuchar and later Biden. Wolfing down a hamburger, he chuckled and said, “I woke up this morning, looked in the mirror and said, ‘Fritz, you’re a moderate.’”

From his early days in his 20s, when he worked with his mentor, Hubert Humphrey, to drive communists out of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Mondale understood that politics is the art of the possible.

Sens. Walter Mondale (at left) and Hubert Humphrey applaud a fellow DFLer, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, during Anderson's inaugural message on January 8, 1975, (Kent Kobersteen/Minneapolis Tribune via AP)
Sens. Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey at Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson's inaugural message in 1975. (Kent Kobersteen/Minneapolis Tribune via AP)

In the Senate, where he served from 1964 until 1976, he amassed a liberal voting record but earned trust across the aisle and a reputation as a bridge builder. He wrote the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968, which bans discrimination in housing, and shepherded it to passage — a bill that, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, made up what is sometimes called the “Second Reconstruction.”

Mondale had witnessed how President Lyndon Johnson demeaned Humphrey when the latter served as vice president, and at first he was reluctant to go on the 1976 Democratic ticket as Carter’s running mate. He relented when Carter promised to break precedent and give him real responsibilities.

Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing (without it, he quipped, “you might as well be in Baltimore”); the first to be in the military chain of command (“Boy, did that change the attitude of the Pentagon”); the first to have a weekly lunch with the president; the first with walk-in privileges in the Oval Office; and the first, and so far only, to be described by his boss as the “assistant president.”

President Jimmy Carter (L) and Vice President Walter Mondale in the President's private office, May 1977 in Washington, DC. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale in the president's private office in 1977. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Carter informed senior staffers: “If you get an order from Fritz, it’s as if it's an order from me.” He added that if any of them followed the historical pattern and tried to sideline the veep, they would be fired.

Mondale told me that Carter “executivized” and thus revolutionized the office of the vice presidency. This became arguably the most significant strengthening of the American constitutional system since the end of World War II.

Carter and Mondale developed a strong and enduring personal relationship. Mondale’s advice was sometimes wrong (letting the shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment, which led to the seizure of American hostages in Tehran), sometimes right (telling Carter that imposing a grain embargo on the Soviet Union after the 1980 invasion of Afghanistan would be ineffective) and always brutally candid.

In the summer of 1979, long lines at gas stations caused Carter’s popularity to plummet. “You have a style problem,” Mondale told the president, with others in the room, at Camp David, where Carter was preparing his infamous “malaise” speech (though he never used that word). “You can’t uplift people.”

Vice President Walter Mondale chairs a meeting of the Energy Task Force in Washington D.C., June 27, 1979. From left are: Alvin Alm of the Department of Energy; Jack Watson, assistant to the president; Mondale; Stuart Eizenstat, assistant to the president for domestic affairs;Ernest Olsen of the Interstate Commerce Commission and Dan O
Vice President Walter Mondale chairs a meeting of the Energy Task Force in Washington D.C., in 1979. (Harvey Georges/AP)

When Carter took Mondale for a walk around the grounds at Camp David, he found his vice president “quite distraught.” That month, Mondale seriously considered resigning, or at least announcing that he would not be on the ticket in 1980. He chose to stay and fight, and felt especially aggrieved by Sen. Edward Kennedy’s futile effort to deny Carter renomination.

Four years later, Mondale won the Iowa caucuses but was upset by Sen. Gary Hart in the New Hampshire primary. He eventually limped to the nomination before being pummeled by Reagan. Covering the campaign for Newsweek, I was struck by the contrast between the private and public Mondale.

In private, he was warm and funny, with a sophisticated analysis of the challenges facing the country; in public, he was wooden and formulaic, with the same inability to uplift audiences that he had seen in Carter.

Last winter I was fortunate enough to see the private, unassuming Mondale on a Zoom call with a handful of former Carter aides. There he was at home like the rest of us, smiling over shared memories and worrying about how President Trump was hurting the country.

When I heard he was ailing, I thought of him in the context of the murder of George Floyd. For more than 70 years, Walter Mondale fought for civil rights in Minnesota and beyond. After the verdict, he would want us to carry on his work and build a better, more just America.

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, photographed at his Mill District condo on Tuesday afternoon, April 30, 2019 in Minneapolis. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Mondale in 2019. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

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