Ex-Vice President and champion of liberal politics, dies at 93

Former Vice President Walter Mondale during and interview on December 12, 1983. (Photo: NYTimes)
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.اضافة اعلان

Kathy Tunheim, a spokesperson for the family, announced the death. She did not specify a cause. But Mondale was prepared for the end. Over the weekend he spoke for the last time with former President Jimmy Carter, under whom he served; and with President Joe 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 Rep. 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 Carter, from 1977 to 1981, 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 Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with 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,” Carter said in a statement Monday night, expressing grief over the passing of “my dear friend.”

Joe Biden said in his own message of condolence that when then-Sen. 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 Mondale’s redefining the vice presidency “as a full partnership” had “helped provide a model for my service.” And he noted that 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, 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 US 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.

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

At the White House, 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. 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. Mondale not only advised against the speech; he was “distraught” when he heard the plans for it, Carter later wrote.

In his memoir, “The Good Fight,” published in 2010, 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 Carter’s approval ratings, from which the president never recovered.

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

Kennedy assailed the administration’s budget cuts and deregulation of energy prices, but 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 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 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 Reagan was swept back into office easily.

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

A rangy, square-built former college football player, roughly 6 feet tall, 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.”

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, Mondale and his wife, Joan Mondale, set an informal tone at the official residence. Trained in art history, Joan Mondale, who died in 2014 at 83, was active in fundraising 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, Walter 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.

Fighting ‘The Good Fight’

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 Mondale was an obvious front-runner in a field of Democratic candidates in which Sen. 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.”

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

But in the fall, 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 Mondale’s fortunes came at the first presidential debate, when a rambling summation by Reagan raised doubts about whether he was too old for the job. (He was 73 at the time.) At the next debate, however, 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 Mondale (who was 56). “I think the campaign ended right there,” he said later.

After his humbling defeat, 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 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 US servicemen in 1995 had provoked outrage.

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

In 2018, Carter and leading political figures of the last half-century joined 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 Mondale and 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. Carter is 96.

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

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