Walter. F. Mondale

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Walter. F. Mondale

Active in politics throughout his adult life, Walter F. (Fritz) Mondale (born 1928) served consecutively as Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, and U.S. vice president under Jimmy Carter. He lost the 1984 presidential election to incumbent Ronald Reagan, carrying only 13 electoral votes.

Born on January 5, 1928, in Ceylon, Minnesota, Walter Frederick Mondale was the second son of the marriage of Theodore and Claribel (Cowan) Mondale. A Methodist clergyman, the elder Mondale moved his family to a succession of small Minnesota towns before settling in 1937 in Elmore, near the Iowa border. The Mondales' home life was marked by strong moral and religious standards, but also by a tolerant and optimistic spirit.

In school Walter Mondale starred on the football, basketball, and track teams; was an accomplished debater and singer; and was president of his class. Upon graduation in 1946 he enrolled at Macalester College, working in summers as a farm laborer to help pay his tuition. In 1949, when his father died, he left school temporarily in order to earn enough to pay all the costs of his education.

Getting Started in Politics

While a college freshman Mondale became involved in the activities of Minnesota's prospering Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party. He volunteered to help in the Minneapolis mayoral campaign of young Hubert Humphrey in 1947 and then, a year later, in Humphrey's successful Senate campaign. Having successfully organized a Macalester campus chapter of Students for Democratic Action (an affiliate of the strongly anti-Communist Americans for Democratic Action), Mondale in 1949 accepted a paying position as Washington-based executive director of SDA. He held that position until leaving in 1950 to resume his education at the University of Minnesota.

With a new sense of purpose, Mondale graduated cum laude from Minnesota in 1951; spent a two-year Army hitch at Fort Knox, Kentucky; and then enrolled in the University of Minnesota Law School. In 1956 he graduated in the top one-fourth of his class and was admitted to the Minnesota State Bar. Meanwhile, on December 27, 1955, Mondale married Joan Adams, a refined young woman with a strong interest in the arts. They were to have three children: Theodore Adams, Eleanore Jane, and William Hall.

On returning to Minnesota in 1950, Mondale had reentered DFL politics, helping in Orville Freeman's unsuccessful campaign for attorney general. After law school he was able to immerse himself in partisan activities. While engaged in establishing a new law firm with his friend Harry McLaughlin, Mondale served as de facto campaign manager for Freeman's gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1956 and then as official campaign manager for Freeman two years later. By the late 1950s Mondale was a respected party tactician and, as state finance director for the DFL, enjoyed extensive political contacts throughout the state.

From Attorney General to the Senate

Mondale's payoff came in May 1960. Having served since 1958 as a special assistant to the state attorney general, Miles Lord, Mondale was appointed to succeed Lord when the latter resigned. He made the most of this opportunity. Capitalizing on publicity resulting from a dramatic investigation of corruption in the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation, he was easily elected attorney general in his own right in 1960. Two years later he was re-elected with one of the largest majorities in Minnesota history.

As attorney general Mondale demonstrated a commitment to the "underclasses" of society that was to mark his entire political career, initiating a number of anti-trust, civil rights, and consumer protection actions. Most dramatic was his drafting of a brief in the landmark Gideon case, then (1962) before the Supreme Court. This brief, supporting the right of indigent defendants to counsel, was eventually co-signed by the attorneys general of more than 20 other states.

Mondale's emergence as a leading figure in the Minnesota DFL, his legal expertise, and his consistent attachment to liberal principles won him a key role at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. A member of the convention credentials committee, he was selected to head a five-member mediating commission to determine the fate of a claim by the predominantly Black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that its delegates should be awarded the state's seats on the convention floor rather than the segregationist regular Democrats. Aware that his efforts would decide whether the vice presidential nomination would go to Hubert Humphrey (to whom President Lyndon Johnson had delegated the overall responsibility to resolve the dispute), Mondale brought the "no-win" situation to conclusion by clever maneuvering and eloquent argument.

The compromise—while it did not satisfy the principal antagonists—passed the test of political expediency: Johnson was pleased, Humphrey received the vice presidential nomination, and—after the Democratic ticket won in November—Mondale was appointed by Minnesota's Democratic governor to complete Humphrey's unexpired term. In January 1965 Mondale became a senator in the Eighty-ninth Congress, which was to become a virtual rubber stamp for Johnson's Great Society programs.

Looking toward the 1966 election, Mondale established himself as one of LBJ's most reliable supporters, amassing impeccable liberal credentials as measured by interest groups such as ADA and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). He strongly backed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and was among the strongest proponents of an anti-poll-tax amendment that nearly passed. He also quickly became identified with the cause of farmers, and, especially through co-sponsoring a 1966 law requiring automakers to notify consumers of defects in cars they had purchased, he won the reputation of an advocate for consumers. In November 1966, repeating the pattern of his experience as Minnesota attorney general, he won election in his own right, securing nearly 54 percent of the vote.

A Leading Liberal in the Senate

During the late 1960s—difficult years for the Democratic Party—Mondale enhanced his image as spokesperson for the "powerless"—especially minorities, the very young, and the elderly. He was instrumental in securing passage of an amended Open Housing Act in 1968 which capped off the legislative civil rights revolution of the decade and unsuccessfully backed a mortgage subsidy program for low-income citizens. On the crucially important Vietnam War issue, however, Mondale waffled, drawing criticism from the left. A loyal adherent of Johnson's Vietnam policy until the Tet offensive in early 1968, he kept his doubts about the war largely to himself through the tumultuous period preceding that year's Democratic convention, supporting his old friend Hubert Humphrey for the presidential nomination in opposition to many party liberals. Finally, in September 1968—over a month before Humphrey did so—Mondale broke from LBJ's policies, calling publicly for an unconditional halt to bombing over North Vietnam. Thereafter he strongly opposed the war, as well as any other American intervention in Southeast Asia. He later claimed that supporting the war for so long was his worst political mistake.

After Richard Nixon's election in 1968 Mondale became less conciliatory, abandoning the tendency to compromise that had marked his earlier career. A harsh critic of both the war and Nixon's domestic policies, Mondale gained added stature and visibility through his work on the Special Senate Committee on Aging and the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. His primary legislative success—a comprehensive child-care measure passed by the Senate in 1971—was vetoed by Nixon. Others of his efforts met with greater success.

By 1972 Mondale had emerged as a sufficiently significant figure in the party to be asked by George McGovern to be his running mate—an offer Mondale refused. Seeking reelection to the Senate instead, he won with 57 percent of the vote despite Nixon's landslide re-election.

With the benefit of more important and prestigious committee assignments (Finance, Budget, and the Select Committee on Intelligence), Mondale branched into new areas of concern in the mid-1970s. He championed tax reform and vigorously criticized abuses of power by the CIA and FBI. Appalled by the excesses of the Nixon administration, in 1975 he published an indictment of the "imperial" presidency, The Accountability of Power: Toward a More Responsive Presidency.

Meanwhile, Mondale had developed presidential aspirations of his own. In the fall of 1974 he launched a brief pre-campaign, dropping out within a few weeks because, he said, he lacked "the overwhelming desire to be President, which is essential for the kind of campaign that is required." The eventual winner of the 1976 Democratic nomination, Jimmy Carter, overlooked this seeming lack of commitment, however, selecting Mondale as his vice presidential running mate.

Vice President and After

In agreeing to join Carter on the 1976 ticket, Mondale made clear he would expect to be an "activist" vice president, serving as all-purpose adviser to the president. Beginning immediately after their narrow electoral victory in November, he worked closely with Carter in selecting the cabinet and setting policy priorities. Once in office, Mondale served as both general adviser and emissary for the president. During his four years as vice president, he handled 13 foreign assignments, including sensitive missions to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa. Mondale frequently disagreed with Carter in private. Publicly, however, Mondale was unfailingly loyal to Carter. He played a significant role in winning support from Democratic interest groups and legislators for some of Carter's less orthodox measures. The Mondales were also the first family to reside in the new official home for the vice president on the grounds of the Naval Observatory.

After he and Carter were defeated for re-election in 1980 Mondale found himself out of public office for the first time in 20 years. He immediately signed on with the Washington office of Winston and Strawn, a prestigious Chicago law firm. From his law firm salary and numerous speaking honoraria he earned a substantial income for the first time: over $1.1 million within two years. By late 1981, however, he had decided to run for the presidency himself in 1984. Starting out behind Edward (Ted) Kennedy in the polls, he became the front-runner for the Democratic nomination when Kennedy announced in late 1982 that he would not run. After a marathon candidacy in which he was nearly derailed by Sen. Gary Hart, Mondale won the 1984 nomination, and, in a historic move, selected as his running mate the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York.

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket never really had a chance running against the popular incumbant, Ronald Reagan. After a desultory campaign in which Mondale was portrayed by his foes as an "old-style" tool of interest groups, Reagan scored an overwhelming triumph. Mondale received only 41 percent of the vote and 13 electoral votes, the fifth greatest landslide in American history. His presidential aspirations probably permanently dashed, Mondale decided to rejoin Winston and Strawn, at least temporarily, but in a short time was again speaking out against Reagan's policies. A relatively young man, Mondale seemed unlikely to depart altogether from the world of politics—a world in which he had lived since his early college days. He went back to work in a private law firm for a time, while assisting with Democratic party politics on the state level. In 1993 he was named U.S. ambassador to Japan by President Bill Clinton.

Further Reading

A full-scale biography on Mondale was written by Finlay Lewis, titled Mondale, published initially in 1980 and in revised form in 1984, in time for his run for the presidency. A shorter tract is Tom Schneider, Walter Mondale: Serving All the People (1984). Mondale's contributions as vice president are covered in the memoirs of several participants in the Carter administration, most notably Jimmy Carter's own Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1982) and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power & Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (1983). Most useful on Mondale's unsuccessful presidential campaign against Ronald Reagan are Jules Witcover and Jack W. Germond, Wake Us When It's Over: Presidential Politics of 1984 (1985) and Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller, The Quest for the Presidency 1984 (1985). Mondale published a critique of the "imperial" presidency of the early 1970s, The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency (1975). □

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Walter Frederick Mondale

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