Saturday April 24, 2021
Walter Mondale (1928-2021)
Carter and Mondale and the spirit of '76.
Here's my Walter Mondale story. I believe I've told it before.
In the summer of 2004, I was given an assignment for a new legal pubication. I was to write features on two Texas attorneys/politicos: one a Republican in Houston, the other a Democrat in Dallas. For the Republican attorney, besides the principle, I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Karl Rove; for the Dem, former vice president Walter Mondale. It was a heady week. I interviewed some of the most connected, most powerful people on the planet and then on Friday I went down to the unemployment office to explain why I hadn't found a job yet. Such is the life of a freelancer. Oddly, or not, the work I was doing the week I wasn't getting a job wound up becoming my job. The magazine expanded, I was hired as a senior editor, and in early 2005 I moved back to Minneapolis, where I'd been born and raised. I'm now the magazine's editor in chief.
That's not my Walter Mondale story, of course. That's just background. Here's the story.
The week after I moved back to Minneapolis, my then-girlfriend/now wife Patricia came from Seattle to visit and we went to see the movie “Downfall” at the Uptown Theater. That was my old arthouse theater; I saw a lot of classic movies there growing up. While she went to the bathroom, I found us seats, and a moment later another couple came in and laid their stuff in the row in front of us, then departed. When Patricia came back, my eyes were sparkling.
“Guess who's sitting in front of us?”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Adam?”
“No. It's no one we know.”
“Then how can I guess?”
“It's a famous person. Think of the most Minnesota person ever.”
She perked up. “Prince?”
“No, not ... that kind of famous. Think politics.”
“Just tell me.”
I just told her: Walter and Joan Mondale. After the movie was over, I trailed after Monday as he made his way down the aisle and then introduced myself as the journalist who had interviewed him the previous summer about his former advance man Boe Martin. He was gracious, we talked for a bit—Joan had already gone out into the lobby—and I was probably rushing to keep the conversation going when he reached past me to shake Patricia's hand and introduce himself. I'd just been standing there like a doofus, not introducing the woman behind me, but he had better manners. Then we all talked a bit about the movie. It was about the best welcome back to Minnesota I could imagine.
I thought of this again when hearing the news that Walter Mondale died on Monday, age 93.
Most of the obits said the same thing: he was a decent man who suffered a “crushing defeat” when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Few try to parse those two points, but it was one of the great lessons of my young life: decency loses, lies win. In her remembrance, Jane Mayer writes that “He was the last Presidential nominee of either party to respect the American public enough to tell it the hard truth about economic realities.” And you see where it got you. Or where it got us. She remembers Mondale deflating a raucous college campus crowd by talking about the services they'd need when they got old; she remembers him at the 1984 Democratic convention telling the electorate he would have to raise their taxes to ensure those services and a more just society. America half-listened, said “nah,” and went with the guy with the Hollywood career and the slick “Morning in America” campaign commercials. America went with the lies. And the lies only got worse.
He was the son of a Lutheran minister from a small Southern Minnesota town, Ceylon, who became mentee to Minnesota's great rising son, Hubert H. Humphrey. He got out the vote for him in '48, did the same for Orville Freeman in the 1950s, and was appointed state attorney general in 1960. In '62 he was elected to the post. In '64, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the Humphrey vacancy and in '66 he was elected to the post. He was re-elected in a landslide during the year Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. He transformed the vice presidency into something more substantial and wonky, into a working partnership with the president. After '84, he returned to Minnesota and a law practice in downtown Minneapolis at Dorsey & Whitney. He helped Minnesota business thrive. He was U.S. ambassador to Japan, and following the sudden death of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone a few weeks before the 2002 election, he was drafted into the campaign. He lost to another liar, Norm Coleman, during a Republican year. I have trouble forgiving Minnesota for that one.
His death wasn't unexpected but I was surprised by how much it hurt. After I heard the news, I kept pressing my palms against my chest. I, with no rights in this matter.
He left a lovely final note to staff members: “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.”