End of an Era: Walter Mondale, Liberal Icon With a (Gasp) Sense of Humor

(AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Former Senator and Jimmy Carter’s Vice President Walter Mondale died Monday of undisclosed causes.

But the 93-year-old Minnesotan knew the end was near. He made a round of weekend farewell calls to Democratic friends, including Joe Biden, a close political pal from their Senate days together (1964-1976).

A small-town Midwestern native, a minister’s son and student of Hubert Humphrey, Mondale was a decent, interesting man, one of those political dinosaurs, now long extinct, who could remain friends with opponents who were not progressives like himself. Opponents, in turn, returned the favor.

In those days before cable TV, senators of both parties shared a strange belief that compromise could produce half a loaf for each side. They deemed this better than bitterness for everyone and no loaves for anyone, themselves or voters back home. Versus staged acrimonious sound bites for partisan viewers. You may have noticed those cross-aisle days have given way to take-no-prisoners.

“Fritz” Mondale, unlike some of today’s pols, had a droll sense of humor. When he abandoned his own bid for the Democratic nomination in 1976, he said, “I don’t want to spend the next two years in Holiday Inns.”

Not long after, however, Carter tapped him as running mate. Mondale was reminded of his Holiday Inn comment. He said, “I’ve checked and found that they’re all redecorated, and they’re marvelous places to stay.” Hard to imagine any current federal politicians admitting hypocrisy with such good-humored self-deprecation.

Mondale played a major part in elevating the importance of vice presidents, who for generations had been basically incognito White House players. Mondale was, in fact, the first VP to have an office inside the White House, not across the street in the Old Executive Office Building.

John Nance Garner was the first of Franklin Roosevelt’s three vice presidents. Since the Democrats’ 1928 convention in Houston, former House Speaker Garner was one of only two Democrat VP picks who weren’t senators. He once likened the No. 2 White House job to a bucket of warm spit. Except he may not have said spit.

FDR’s third vice president, Harry Truman, was so irrelevant to the president, national politics, and the nation’s war effort against the Axis powers that he knew absolutely nothing of the secret Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. On April 12, 1945, FDR died in Georgia of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Welcome to the presidency, Mr. Truman, we’re about to launch the terrible nuclear age. The what?

Four months later, Truman would become the first — and so far only — leader of any country to order a nuclear weapon’s use in war — on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which ended the war and prevented a bloody U.S. invasion.

Like other presidents with little DC experience, typically rising from governors’ offices, Carter relied on former senator Mondale for many Washington political chores, as well as some delicate diplomatic missions. In 1993, President Bill Clinton (whose own vice president was Al Gore, also a former senator and self-proclaimed inventor of the Internet) appointed Mondale as ambassador to Japan, where he served until 1996.

Mondale, however, is probably best-known nationally as the Democratic presidential candidate with the daunting task of facing incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984. As his running mate, Mondale chose N.Y. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first female ticket mate and the only other Dem VP nominee not from the Senate since the 1920s.

Like Biden, who also had a female ticket partner, Mondale ran openly promising to increase taxes. Because, he said, the national debt had gotten so large, only a fraction of what it is today. Later, Mondale said, “It was very unpopular, but it was undeniably correct.”

Imagine a Democrat confessing concern about such a thing today. Or Republicans, for that matter. Please, Lord, no one tell them what comes after trillions. (Quadrillions)

Another now-familiar phenomenon in that 1984 cycle was concern over the president’s age. Reagan was 73 at the time. He had appeared lost at moments during the first debate with Mondale on Oct. 7, 1984. Reagan and campaign architect Michael Deaver knew that age would be a top issue with media in the second debate, especially since Reagan was at that time the oldest president ever, plus he was a Republican.

Of course, last fall, we had a candidate who was almost a half-decade older than Reagan. But Joe Biden is a Democrat, and an overwhelming number of his voters were actually voting less for him and more against Donald Trump.

For the second debate on NBC TV on Oct 21, the one-time actor Reagan came prepared with a rehearsed zinger.

“I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Mic drop. Laughter brings down the roof in Kansas City. And across the country. Take a sip of water, Mr. President. Age issue nuked. Watch that moment here:

That rehearsed quip was devastating because a) Mondale was “only” 56 at the time, B) Reagan was known for a sense of humor, and C) he did not make it personal by using Mondale’s name.

The Democrat laughed right along with the debate audience, though he was in political pain.

Years later at a private dinner in Idaho, Mondale told me that he knew at that very moment that he had just lost the presidential race.

He was correct. Reagan and George H.W. Bush were reelected in one of U.S. history’s most colossal landslides.

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket was crushed 49 states to one (Minnesota). Electoral Votes–525 to 13. Popular votes–54,455,472 (58.8 percent) to 37,577,562 (40.6 percent), still the largest loss since Alf Landon’s in 1936.

“I did my best,” Mondale said. “I think you know I’ve never really warmed up to television. In fairness to television, it never really warmed up to me.”

Mondale became another vice president to lose his bid for the top job. Al Gore would follow suit 16 years later. Four years after Mondale’s loss, on the other hand, VP George H.W. Bush would win a single four-year term with 53 percent over Michael Dukakis, the tank driver.