The recent passing of Vice President Walter Mondale reminded me of how much water has passed under the bridge since I last thought about him and his accomplishments. Young folks today do not even recognize his name. I embarrassingly have to admit if someone had mentioned Mondale to me three months ago, I would have paused to remember if he was still with us.
Mondale was the protege of the Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior. If Humphrey was Minnesota’s Happy Warrior, then Mondale could be called the Serious Warrior. If I were to play word association, my first thoughts on hearing Mondale’s name would be competent and honest.
He was drawn to politics at an early age, making a name for himself in the successful 1948 Humphrey campaign for Senate in Minnesota. He was in politics at a time when you could be liberal without having to be extreme. Mondale believed in big government having a positive role in people’s lives.
Mondale was better than competent. He was a roll-up-your-sleeves public servant who got things done. As Minnesota Attorney General, Mondale led an effort supporting the right for poor to legal counsel. He authored a brief supporting this effort that was affirmed by the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). In the Senate, he co-wrote the Fair Housing Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the housing market based on race, religion, national origin, and gender. He was a leader in domestic and foreign affairs for all his political days, even after he left elective office and the cross-hairs of public conscience.
Mondale faded from national prominence following his monumental defeat in the 1984 election against Ronald Reagan. It really was the most lopsided of all presidential landslide defeats. Mondale was not going to best Reagan in that election. His honesty in proclaiming at the Democratic Convention that he would raise everyone’s taxes to pay for a liberal agenda probably pulled landslide from the jaws of merely a serious defeat. Mondale came across as yesterday’s news, even to many Democrats of the time. It was a Republican time, and for the nation, it was still Morning in America. Reagan’s campaign message of small government and economic recovery was well articulated by a President who communicated well, and to an audience ready to listen.
I do not believe that defeat defined Mondale’s legacy and service. I like to think he was comfortable in his own shoes. Everything I have remembered of Mondale suggests a humble and honest man. By all accounts, he was a good family man.
He left politics and became a fixture at the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. Mondale had forays into national politics. He served as US Ambassador to Japan. He embraced the role of elder statesman, both in Minnesota and the national Democratic Party. Few of us outside of the political intelligentsia noticed.
His passing has jolted us to remember his contributions to discourse and demeanor. Public servants such as Walter Mondale are in great need and short supply in today’s polarized national politics.
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