MINNEAPOLIS —Walter F. Mondale, a country preacher’s kid who grew up to become an attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president and Democratic presidential nominee, has died. He was age 93.
His family reported his death Monday evening.
An icon of American liberalism in the second half of the 20th century, Mondale made his biggest mark as the vice president who converted that office from a historical joke — Vice President John Nance Gardner famously described it as a job that wasn’t “worth a pitcher of warm spit” — to one of the vital centers in American government.
Asked in 2007 to describe his proudest accomplishment under President Jimmy Carter, Mondale repeated a favorite line: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace.
“It may not sound like much, but if you’ve got that, you can handle the rest.”
For a man who toiled at the highest levels of national politics and international diplomacy, “Fritz” Mondale had distinctly humble beginnings.
Born in the tiny farming town of Ceylon, Minn., just north of the Iowa border, on Jan. 5, 1928, he was the son of a Methodist minister, Theodore Mondale, and a part-time music teacher, Claribel.
Mondale once described his father as a “purist populist,” whose heroes included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Farmer-Labor Gov. Floyd B. Olson. He enjoyed talking politics with his wife and children at the dinner table.
The Mondales moved to Elmore, Minn., when Walter was 9 years old. At the local high school, he starred in football, basketball and track, founded a student political organization called the “Republicrats” and earned pocket money by singing at weddings and funerals.
He enrolled at Macalester College in 1946 and quickly became active in politics. In 1947 he organized the “Diaper Brigade” of student volunteers who assisted Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey and other leaders of the newly merged Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party seize control from left-wing extremists. The following year he helped Humphrey win his first election to the U.S. Senate, managing his campaign in south central Minnesota.
In 1949, he took a year off from college to go to Washington with Humphrey and serve as the head of the student affiliate of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. That marked the start of their long mentor-protégé relationship.
Mondale returned to Minnesota in 1950, managed Orville Freeman’s unsuccessful campaign for attorney general and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1951. Lacking money for law school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, in part to qualify for the G.I. Bill, and served two years at Fort Knox, Ky., during the Korean War. After being discharged, he returned to the university and earned his law degree in 1956.
A year before finishing law school, he married Joan Adams Mondale, the daughter of the Macalester College chaplain. They had three children: Ted, Eleanor and William.
Mrs. Mondale, known as “Joan of Art” because of her tireless promotion of the arts as America’s second lady and a fixture of the Twin Cities cultural scene, died in 2014 after battling dementia.
Their daughter Eleanor, a radio and TV personality, died in 2011 of brain cancer. Mr. Mondale’s two sons survive him.
Early start in politics
While establishing a private law practice in Minneapolis, Mondale managed Freeman’s successful campaign for a third term as governor in 1958. Two years later, Freeman appointed Mondale, then just 32 and four years out of law school, as attorney general to fill the vacancy created when Miles Lord was named U.S. attorney.
Throughout his career, Mondale had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After being handed the attorney general’s job, he was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1964, and Jimmy Carter selected him as his running mate in 1976. Mondale was elected attorney general in his own right in 1960 and re-elected in 1962.
He made his debut on the national political stage at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where Humphrey asked him to mediate a dispute between two delegations from Mississippi — one composed of civil rights activists from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, representing African-Americans who were barred from voting, and the all-white Regular Democrats.
Mondale negotiated a compromise that offered two at-large seats to the Freedom Democrats and seated members of the all-white delegation who would sign a loyalty oath to the party’s nominee. It also barred segregated delegations at future conventions.
The compromise angered both sides. The Regular Democrats walked out of the convention, and the Freedom Democrats launched a protest demonstration. But the reforms the Mondale compromise set in motion opened the Democratic Party to minorities and other groups that had been shut out before.
Following a mentor
When Humphrey was elected vice president in 1964, DFL Gov. Karl Rolvaag appointed Mondale to fill Humphrey’s vacant Senate seat. He was elected to a full six-year Senate term in 1966 and re-elected by a wide margin in 1972.
As a legislator, Mondale compiled a solidly liberal record. He championed government intervention to help the poor, the elderly and especially young children. He enthusiastically supported President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. His voting ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action were consistently 90% or higher.
In a lecture at the University of Minnesota in 2003, he recalled his first session in Congress (1965-66) as the “high tide” of his legislative career. It would be remembered, he said, for “breaking the back of official discrimination in America with the adoption of the Voting Rights Act.”
It did much more, he said. “We passed the first serious federal anti-pollution laws for air and water… We enacted the landmark Medicare and Medicaid programs… We adopted a vast range of deep reforms in education… We declared war on poverty.”
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Mondale helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that prohibited racial discrimination in housing. As chairman of a Senate committee on equal educational opportunity, he was credited of blocking a stream of anti-busing bills. He led a successful fight to win unemployment benefits and legal services for migrant workers.
A focus on children
He devoted much of his time and energy to children’s issues. He advocated for increased funding for health care, education, day care, nutrition and developmental services, and while he didn’t get everything he sought (President Nixon vetoed his ambitious Economic Opportunity Act of 1971), he managed to push through increased appropriations for many children’s programs.
An avid conservationist, he promoted creation of Voyageurs National Park, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Minnesota Valley and Sherburne national wildlife refuges.
In foreign affairs, he supported American involvement in the Vietnam War until 1968, then called his hawkish stance the biggest mistake of his public career. It was, he said in a 1969 speech at Macalester, “a military, a political and a moral disaster.”
After that he became more dovish. In 1971, he voted to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Vietnam. Two years later, he co-sponsored the War Powers Resolution, which limits presidential power to wage war without congressional assent. Later, he led a successful effort to end domestic spying by U.S. intelligence agencies.
In 1975, he published his first book, “The Accountability of Power: Toward a More Responsible Presidency.” His second book, “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics,” was published in 2010.
“My Senate years were the happiest of my public career,” he said years later in a lecture in the Senate chamber. “I found my sweet spot here.”
A run for the White House
Mondale toyed with the idea of running for president in the 1976 election, but bowed out in 1974, saying “I don’t want to spend the next two years in Holiday Inns.”
But when Carter asked him to be his running mate, Mondale jumped at the chance. After their election, he made history by redefining the role of the vice president in the U.S. government. He was the first vice president to have an office in the White House, and he and Carter quickly converted the vice presidency from a historical joke to one of most powerful offices in government.
Before Mondale, the vice president’s only prescribed duty was to preside over the Senate, where he could only vote to break ties.
But Mondale was invited to every presidential meeting and had access to all of Carter’s secret documents. The two had private lunches weekly. He traveled the world on diplomatic missions, lobbied Congress for the president’s policies, spoke to powerful groups on Carter’s behalf and helped set the administration’s agenda.
“Mondale inaugurated a new age of the vice presidency,” said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar at St. Louis University Law School.
Playing a key role in many of the administration’s foreign and domestic initiatives, he laid the groundwork for the Camp David talks that produced a historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and he persuaded the Navy to reverse its policy and rescue Southeast Asian “boat people,” prompting the international community to resettle 3 million refugees.
He led important diplomatic missions to China and South Africa and helped make human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. He swayed Congress to reform intelligence laws and pass tough energy conservation standards.
But he also had a hand in Carter’s policy failures. They included soaring interest rates and runaway inflation, a grain embargo and cancellation of U.S. participation in the Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The American hostage crisis in Iran and the president’s refusal to take military action against that country’s revolutionary government cost the Carter-Mondale ticket the 1980 election.
Mondale won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, but President Reagan defeated him in a landslide. He carried only Minnesota and the District of Columbia, resulting in the worst defeat ever for a Democratic candidate.
But Mondale made political history in that race by selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first woman ever to run on a major party presidential ticket.
After the election, Mondale returned to private law practice in Minneapolis. In 1993, President Clinton appointed him U.S. ambassador to Japan, a post he held for three years before returning to Minnesota in 1996.
The University of Minnesota Law School in 2001 named its new building Walter F. Mondale Hall.
When U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 election, Democrats nominated Mondale, then 74, to replace Wellstone on the ballot. He narrowly lost the election to Republican Norm Coleman, 50% to 47%.
It was the only time Minnesota voters turned down Mondale.
Active civic life
After his defeat, Mondale remained active in civic and political affairs. He lectured at the University of Minnesota and established the Mondale Policy Forum at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
He traveled around the globe promoting international relations, served on numerous non-profit and corporate boards of directors and campaigned for state and national Democratic candidates. He came in to his office at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm every day he was in Minneapolis.
In December 2007, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stone appointed Mondale as Norway’s honorary consul general in the Midwest, a post he held until 2010.
As a tribute to his life and legacy, the U’s Humphrey School in 2015 presented Mondale a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to public life.
In accepting the award, Mondale said, “If I have one hope in my public life, it was the ongoing quest for social justice in America. That’s what I believed, that’s what I believe and that’s what I will believe as long as I’m alive.
“And I believe more than ever today civil rights, access to justice, equality for men and women and human rights are still the issues of our future.”