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Walter Mondale, Ex-Vice President and Champion of Liberal Politics, Dies at 93

Under Jimmy Carter, he was the first V.P. to serve as a genuine partner of a president. His own run for the top position ended in a crushing defeat.

by Steven R. Weisman for The New York Times April 19, 2021

Walter F. Mondale in 1983. “My whole life, I worked on the idea that government can be an instrument for social progress,” he said in 2010. “We need that progress. Fairness requires it.” Credit: George Tames/The New York Times

Walter F. Mondale, the former vice president and champion of liberal politics, activist government and civil rights who ran as the Democratic candidate for president in 1984, losing to President Ronald Reagan in a landslide, died on Monday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 93.

Kathy Tunheim, a spokeswoman for the family, announced the death. She did not specify a cause. But Mr. Mondale was prepared for the end. Over the weekend he spoke for the last time with former President Jimmy Carter, under whom he served; with President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden; and with Vice President Kamala Harris. And he sent a farewell email to his former staff members.

A son of a minister of modest means, Fritz Mondale, as he was widely known, led a rich public life that began in Minnesota under the tutelage of his state’s progressive pathfinder, Hubert H. Humphrey. He achieved his own historic firsts, especially with his selection of Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York as his running mate in 1984, the first woman to seek the vice presidency on a major national ticket.

Under President Carter, from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Mondale was the first vice president to serve as a genuine partner of a president, 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.

“Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before,” Mr. Carter said in a statement on Monday night, expressing grief over the passing of “my dear friend.”

President Biden said in his own message of condolence that when then-Senator Barack Obama asked him to consider running for vice president alongside him in 2008, “Fritz was my first call and trusted guide.” He said that Mr. Mondale’s redefining the vice presidency “as a full partnership” had “helped provide a model for my service.” And he noted that Mr. Mondale “was the first presidential nominee of either party to select a woman as his running mate, and I know how pleased he was to be able to see Kamala Harris become vice president.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Mondale advocated an assertive and interventionist role for the federal government, especially on behalf of the poor, minority groups and women.

“I’m a liberal or a progressive,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2010. “I didn’t use the ‘liberal’ word much, because I thought it carried too much baggage. But my whole life, I worked on the idea that government can be an instrument for social progress. We need that progress. Fairness requires it.”

He furthered that cause during his 12 years representing Minnesota in the United States Senate, where he was a strong supporter of civil rights, school aid, expansion of health care and child care, consumer protection, and many other liberal programs. In 1974, he briefly explored running for president.

Mr. Mondale represented Minnesota for 12 years in the Senate. Mr. Mondale, second from right, was on hand when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an open housing bill in 1968. Credit: Associated Press

Two years later, Mr. Carter, a former Georgia governor, wanted someone experienced in Washington when he chose Mr. Mondale as his running mate. Before joining the ticket, Mr. Mondale got a promise that he would have a close working relationship with Mr. Carter, with influence on policy, noting that he had seen Mr. Humphrey marginalized in that post by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the turbulent 1960s. Mr. Humphrey urged him to accept the offer.

At the White House, Mr. Mondale was a leader of the administration’s liberal wing, frequently clashing with Southern conservatives as he argued for affirmative action and more help for the unemployed and other spending programs as the economy soured.

He was sharply at odds with the president in 1979 as energy prices spiked and lines at gasoline stations stretched around the block. Mr. Carter had decided to address the turmoil in a televised speech to the nation from the Oval Office about what he perceived to be a “crisis of confidence” in the American spirit. Mr. Mondale not only advised against the speech; he was “distraught” when he heard the plans for it, Mr. Carter later wrote.

In his memoir, “The Good Fight,” published in 2010, Mr. Mondale called the episode “the only serious falling out that Carter and I had in four years.” The address — known as the “malaise” speech, though that word was never used — was followed by the firing of several cabinet members and a plunge in Mr. Carter’s approval ratings, from which the president never recovered.

The Carter administration used Mr. Mondale for foreign assignments and for building domestic support for its foreign policy initiatives. His rapport with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel helped bring about the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel negotiated by Mr. Carter at Camp David in 1978. Mr. Mondale then helped sell the treaty to the American Jewish community.

He also generated support in Congress for the Panama Canal Treaty and for nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.

“You can divide every vice president in American history into two categories: pre-Walter Mondale and post-Walter Mondale,” former Vice President Al Gore said.

Mr. Carter chose Mr. Mondale as his running mate in 1976. He was the first vice president to serve as a genuine partner of a president. Credit: James Garrett/New York Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

Having lost some internal arguments on domestic matters, Mr. Mondale remained loyal and stumped the country for Mr. Carter against a liberal challenge for the party’s nomination in 1980 by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mr. Kennedy assailed the administration’s budget cuts and deregulation of energy prices, but Mr. Mondale argued that liberals and conservatives alike needed to face up to the dangers of mounting deficits, which many economists said were stoking inflation.

He hammered the same theme running against Mr. Reagan in 1984, warning that deficits resulting from the Reagan tax cuts in 1981 also had to be reduced, in part by tax increases that he said were inevitable no matter who won.

“Let’s tell the truth,” he declared in his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, referring to the need to tackle deficits. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

The convention applauded his candor, but the Reagan camp pounced, gleefully portraying Mr. Mondale as favoring tax increases while the economy was surging. The Reagan campaign countered with an ad proclaiming that a new “morning in America” had dawned, and Mr. Reagan was swept back into office easily.

Mr. Mondale got less than 41 percent of the popular vote and lost every state except his native Minnesota, adding only the District of Columbia to his win column. (After his re-election, Mr. Reagan did end up raising some taxes.)

A rangy, square-built former college football player, roughly six feet tall, Mr. Mondale could appear formal and stiff in public. “I’m not good on TV,” he once said. “It’s just not a natural medium for me.”

After Ronald Reagan defeated the Carter-Mondale ticket, Mr. Mondale turned to practicing law and preparing for a presidential run. Mr. Mondale and his wife, Joan, in 1984 at an election rally in Washington, D.C. Credit: Ira Schwarz/Associated Press

But in speeches he could lift his flat, nasal Minnesota voice to soaring tenor cadences. He was jocular and self-deprecating in private, even a bit off-color when making fun of himself, but he also showed a zest for combat and a love of political stories, which he told with relish while enjoying a cigar (though he never allowed himself to be photographed with one). He was a fan of the subversively zany comedy of Monty Python and the darkly satirical movies of Joel and Ethan Coen, Minnesota natives themselves.

As vice president, Mr. Mondale and his wife, Joan Mondale, set an informal tone at the official residence. Trained in art history, Ms. Mondale, who died in 2014 at 83, was active in fund-raising for the arts, wrote a book on art for children and worked as a docent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The couple’s marriage was considered one of the strongest in Washington.

While savoring the life of a public man, Mr. Mondale loved to retreat by himself or with a friend to fish for trout or walleyed pike in Minnesota lakes reachable only by seaplane. In the winter, he would go off and chop holes in the ice and fish for days on end.

His humor was dry. “I was once asked why I fished, and I said it was cheaper than a psychiatrist,” he said. In 1974, when he dropped his nascent presidential campaign, he said he did not wish to spend the next two years staying at Holiday Inns. Running for vice president two years later, he said he was amazed at how Holiday Inns had improved.

Walter Frederick Mondale was born on Jan. 5, 1928, in the hamlet of Ceylon, in southern Minnesota, in a lake region less than five miles from the Iowa border. He was the second son of Claribel (Cowan) Mondale, a musician and piano teacher, and the Rev. Theodore S. Mondale, a farmer and Methodist minister.

The family name was originally Mundal, after the small town in Norway from which Mr. Mondale’s paternal great-grandfather, Frederick, came to southern Minnesota in 1856. (Walter not only got his middle name in honor of his great-grandfather, but also inherited Frederick’s nickname, Fritz.)

Mr. Mondale’s father lost a series of farms in the 1920s and moved from town to town, subsisting on meager earnings while Mr. Mondale’s mother gave music lessons and led the choir in each of Theodore’s parishes. His parents believed in helping the less fortunate and never making a show of it.

Once asked whether he would be a good president, Mr. Mondale said: “I have trouble answering that. If my father had ever heard me tell him that I would make a good president, I would have been taken directly to the woodshed. In my family, the two things you were sure to get spanked for were lying or bragging about yourself.”

Fritz Mondale was an average student but an enthusiastic football player; he broke his nose as a high school varsity halfback. He attended Macalester College in St. Paul before transferring to the University of Minnesota and graduating cum laude in 1951 with a degree in political science.

Mr. Mondale, accompanied by his wife, Joan, was sworn in as Minnesota attorney general by Chief Justice Roger Dell of the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1960. Credit: Gene Herrick/Associated Press

Steeped in the progressive political views of his father, Mr. Mondale joined the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and became involved in its internal battle to oust Communists and their sympathizers. Mr. Humphrey, at the time the outspoken mayor of Minneapolis, led that fight, and in 1948 Mr. Mondale signed up for Mr. Humphrey’s first Senate campaign. Mr. Humphrey became a friend who would influence Mr. Mondale’s rise.

Mr. Mondale worked at odd jobs during his college years, including inspecting peas for lice at a local cannery. (After becoming vice president he liked to say that he was “the only pea-lice inspector” to have risen to such high office.) He took a year off to run the student arm of Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal advocacy group.

After graduation came two years in the Army, a return to the University of Minnesota for law school and marriage to Joan Adams, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. They had two sons and a daughter. Their daughter, Eleanor Mondale Poling, a television and radio personality, died of brain cancer in 2011 at age 51.

Mr. Mondale’s survivors include his sons, Theodore, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Minnesota in 1998, and William, a lawyer; four grandchildren; and two step-granddaughters.

Mr. Mondale practiced law in Minneapolis until 1960, when the state attorney general resigned and Gov. Orville L. Freeman, who had been a partner in Mr. Mondale’s law firm, appointed him, at 32, to fill the post. As a young law associate, Mr. Mondale had managed campaigns for Mr. Freeman, who was later secretary of agriculture under President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Mondale went on to win election twice in his own right. He joined 21 other attorneys general in signing a brief that helped persuade the United States Supreme Court to uphold the right of counsel for indigent defendants in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963.

The following year he was thrust into national politics at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City as head of the party’s credentials committee. In that post he helped Senator Humphrey broker a deal, at President Johnson’s behest, between segregated and integrated factions of delegates from Mississippi. The agreement produced rules banning segregated delegations in the future.

Mr. Mondale was joined by his friend and mentor, Hubert H. Humphrey, at a parade in Minnesota in 1976. Credit: Associated Press

A twist of fate — a vacancy, and then an appointment to fill it — had propelled Mr. Mondale into state politics. Now came another that would send him to Washington. When Johnson selected Mr. Humphrey as his running mate, Mr. Mondale was chosen to fill Mr. Humphrey’s Senate seat. He was sworn in by Mr. Humphrey at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where Mr. Mondale had had an emergency appendectomy. He was later elected twice to the Senate with no difficulty.

In the Senate, Mr. Mondale lined up in favor of Johnson’s Great Society legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and worked to enact fair housing laws against powerful opposition. He pressed for programs in education, child care, health care, jobs, desegregation and consumer protection.

One of his proudest legislative achievements, he said, was his leadership role in making it easier for the Senate to cut off a filibuster with 60 votes, under a rule change, rather than a two-thirds vote, as was previously required. One of his biggest regrets, he said, was his delay, until 1969, in turning against the Vietnam War.

By the 1970s Mr. Mondale’s name was on lists of possible candidates for national office. Dutifully, he wrote a campaign book, “The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency” (1975), in which he criticized the “imperial presidency” of Richard M. Nixon, and then joined the race for the 1976 presidential nomination.

The campaign went nowhere. “I remember that after a year I was running six points behind ‘Don’t Know,’” Mr. Mondale said in the 2010 interview. He ended the bid early, in 1974. In withdrawing, he said he lacked an “overwhelming desire to be president.” The comment would come to haunt him.

The Democratic victor, Mr. Carter, a conservative Southerner, was looking for a liberal running mate from the North who could help him pick up support in the industrial states. Mr. Mondale was at the top of everybody’s list, but he had mixed feelings until he got an agreement from the nominee that he would have a full-fledged policy role, expanded from the largely ceremonial functions assigned to most vice presidents.

Mr. Mondale’s chief of staff, Richard Moe, said Mr. Humphrey had been equally persuasive. “‘Fritz,’ he said, ‘if you have a chance to be vice president, you should take it,’” Mr. Moe recalled.

In office, Mr. Carter was true to his word in giving him major responsibilities in the White House, Mr. Mondale said in 2010. “Carter did listen to me a lot, I think,” he said. “I tried to avoid giving a win-loss record. But he was marvelous to me and to Joan. They never insulted our independence or integrity or position.”

Some in the president’s circle, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, later belittled Mr. Mondale’s input as consisting largely of political advice. In one instance, Mr. Mondale argued unsuccessfully against imposing a grain embargo on the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979.

“Mr. President, we need to be strong and firm, but that doesn’t mean you have to commit political suicide,” he said, according to the memoirs of Hamilton Jordan, Mr. Carter’s chief of staff.

Besides the Middle East peace negotiations and the Panama Canal treaty ratification, Mr. Mondale was involved in efforts to save the “boat people” refugees from the Vietnam War, some of whom resettled in Minnesota.

The Carter administration used Mr. Mondale for foreign assignments, and his rapport with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel helped bring about the historic 1978 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Credit: Max Nash/Associated Press

He remained a favorite of Democratic core groups, including unions and teachers, and senior and Black communities. In support of affirmative action, he clashed with Attorney General Griffin B. Bell and other more conservative members of the Carter team.

Mr. Mondale’s liberal advocacy became more problematic as Mr. Carter cut spending and favored tighter monetary policy to control inflation after 1979. A breach with the president erupted that summer, when unemployment, double-digit inflation rates, soaring energy prices and lines at gas stations led to the biggest internal crisis of Mr. Carter’s presidency.

To address the economic disorder, the president scheduled a speech, then canceled it, deciding abruptly instead to hold a “domestic summit” at Camp David with a parade of public figures and intellectuals. The White House’s 29-year-old pollster, Patrick Caddell, had counseled Mr. Carter to address what the pollster called a spiritual “malaise” enveloping the country, caused by the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate as well as the energy and economic situations.

After the summit, Mr. Carter took Mr. Caddell’s advice over the objection of Mr. Mondale and others, emerging to proclaim in a nationally televised speech that a “crisis of confidence” was paralyzing the country and preventing action on energy.

Mr. Mondale was “enraged and even vituperative” in arguing against the speech, according to a 2018 memoir by Stuart Eizenstat, Mr. Carter’s domestic policy adviser. The vice president argued that the president had succumbed to psychobabble from an inexperienced aide.

“He was visibly upset, and his face became so red with anger that I feared for his health,” Mr. Eizenstat wrote.

In his own presidential memoirs, Mr. Carter recalled that Mr. Mondale had been so “distraught” over plans for the speech that he adjourned a meeting at Camp David so that he could settle down his vice president as the two walked around the compound’s grounds.

“You’re very tired and this is affecting your thinking,” Mr. Mondale told the president, according to Mr. Eizenstat. As Mr. Mondale later put it, “my position was that an administration that came in pledging to be as good as the American people should not change into one urging the people to be as good as the government.”

Mr. Mondale with Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping of China at a welcoming dinner at the Great Hall of the People in 1979. Credit: Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

The speech boosted Mr. Carter’s approval ratings, but only temporarily. Within days, Mr. Carter had dismissed several cabinet members, an action intended to signal to Americans that he was in charge. The ousters backfired, however, as the public perceived that the president had, in fact, lost control of his government. Mr. Mondale, who was close to some of those fired, later acknowledged that he had contemplated resigning or at least refusing to run for re-election with Mr. Carter.

Later in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of American hostages by Iranian revolutionaries at the United States Embassy in Tehran only deepened Mr. Carter’s troubles.

Senator Kennedy’s challenge to Mr. Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination divided Democrats, but it also evidently stirred Mr. Mondale’s competitive instincts to protect the president. Though hailing from his party’s liberal wing, Mr. Mondale stood by the president, helping him turn back the Kennedy challenge. But the split in the party weakened the Carter presidency irreparably.

On election night, as the magnitude of the Carter-Mondale defeat at the hands of Mr. Reagan sank in, some of the vice president’s staff began sporting new campaign buttons: “Mondale in ’84.” Mr. Mondale almost immediately started preparing for a run.

Mr. Mondale also began making money for the first time, at the law firm of Winston and Strawn based in Chicago, helping clients with business opportunities in countries where he knew the leadership. Some said he had become another influence peddler.

At first Mr. Mondale was an obvious front-runner in a field of Democratic candidates in which Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also looked strong. Mindful of his history as a dropout in 1974, he declared: “I know myself. I am ready. I am ready to be president of the United States.”

As expected, Mr. Mondale initially raised more money, won more straw votes, did better in all the polls and received more endorsements than his opponents. Yet after an early victory in the Iowa caucuses, his campaign went into a tailspin, losing in the New Hampshire primary to the media-savvy Mr. Hart, who connected with voters by offering “new ideas” compared with he called the “established past” and special interests of Mr. Mondale.

“Fritz, you cannot lead this country if you have promised everybody everything,” Mr. Hart said in a debate.

“Correct, and I have not,” the former vice president replied, adding that his only promises were to workers, the poor and disaffected groups. “America is nothing if it isn’t promises,” he said. “That’s what America is about.”

Mr. Mondale reignited his campaign by accusing Mr. Hart of lacking substance, memorably quoting a popular fast-food hamburger advertisement of the day when he asked in a debate, “Where’s the beef?”

After securing the nomination in the summer, Mr. Mondale stunned the political establishment by selecting Representative Ferraro as his running mate. Women’s groups were elated, and the ticket got a burst of support. Mr. Mondale said it was one of his proudest achievements.

Mr. Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine A. Ferraro, in Portland, Ore., in September 1984. Ms. Ferraro was the first woman to seek the vice presidency on a major national ticket. Credit: Jack Smith/Associated Press

But in the fall, Ms. Ferraro’s campaign foundered amid damaging disclosures about her family’s finances, and the overwhelming disadvantage of running against a popular president as the economy was rebounding became painfully evident.

A momentary change in Mr. Mondale’s fortunes came at the first presidential debate, when a rambling summation by Mr. Reagan raised doubts about whether he was too old for the job. (He was 73 at the time.) At the next debate, however, Mr. Reagan defused the “age issue” by declaring: “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.”

The audience burst into laughter, and so did Mr. Mondale (who was 56). “I think the campaign ended right there,” he said later.

After his humbling defeat, Mr. Mondale went back to Minnesota to practice law, involve himself in public affairs and teach and write as a fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Then the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 opened a new chapter: The president sent Mr. Mondale to Japan as ambassador.

His tenure in Tokyo, lasting until December 1996, was highlighted by his negotiation of an agreement to shrink and move American military bases in Okinawa, where the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen in 1995 had provoked outrage.

In 1998, Mr. Clinton named Mr. Mondale as a special envoy to economically troubled Indonesia.

In 2002, Mr. Mondale was drafted to run for his old Senate seat after the incumbent Democrat, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash. He lost to Norman Coleman, a Republican. Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Back in Minnesota, Mr. Mondale joined the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis, but his political career was still not finished. In 2002, at the age of 74, he was drafted to run for his old Senate seat after the incumbent Democrat, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash 11 days before the election.

Mr. Mondale’s impromptu candidacy was undone, however, by a raucous and emotional memorial service for Mr. Wellstone featuring partisan speeches by his supporters. It turned voters off, and they elected Norman Coleman, a Republican.

The race was Mr. Mondale’s last hurrah, though he continued to speak out and serve as a party elder statesman. Associates said the Senate race defeat had actually energized him.

“It allowed me to be the kind of liberal that I wanted to be,” Mr. Mondale said in the 2010 interview for this obituary. He said that in theory, running for the seat was “a really dumb thing to do,” but that he had no regrets.

In 2018, Mr. Carter and leading political figures of the last half-century joined Mr. Mondale at the University of Minnesota to celebrate his 90th birthday, four years after he had recovered from triple bypass heart surgery. Indeed, the combined longevity of Mr. Mondale and Mr. Carter brought them a certain distinction worthy of a footnote in American history: In 2006, they surpassed John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as the president and vice president from the same administration who had lived the longest since leaving office. Mr. Carter is 96.

Mr. Mondale at his home in Minneapolis in 2016. “You can divide every vice president in American history into two categories: pre-Walter Mondale and post-Walter Mondale,” Vice President Al Gore said of his predecessor. Credit: Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

“I once told the president, one thing I didn’t want to happen is I didn’t want to be embarrassed,” Mr. Mondale said. “In four years, I never was embarrassed, and I don’t think any other V.P. can make that statement.”

In recent years, Mr. Mondale continued his active engagement in politics. He supported Senator Amy Klobuchar, a protégée who had interned for him in college and later worked with him in his law firm, frequently reaching out to check in and to offer advice in her unsuccessful campaign for president last year.

“He never stopped believing in our country and in preparing a new generation of leaders to deal with the next set of problems,” she said in a phone interview on Sunday.

In his 2010 memoir, Mr. Mondale acknowledged that in his later years “the nation was no longer listening” to the call for expanded government and social progress, but he still believed in liberal policies and the inspiration of the Apostle Paul.

“I have fought the good fight,” he said in closing that book. “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

It was a sentiment he echoed on Saturday in his farewell email to his many former staff members, beginning with “Dear team.”

“Well, my time has come,” he wrote. “I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. 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.”

Steven R. Weisman is a former reporter and editor for The New York Times and is now vice president for publications and communications at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

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