Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”
Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.
It speaks well for both men that Carter kept his promise and Mondale redefined the vice-presidency, “with full access to intelligence briefings, a weekly lunch with Mr. Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with Mr. Carter’s,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. His elevated role made it possible for Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden to become similarly significant veeps. And he served as something of an internal lobbyist for the progressive tendencies of a sometimes conservative Carter administration, while remaining loyal, which had particular value when Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries.
The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.
He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.
His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.
Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified lives on in Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession.