Walter Mondale Dies: Former Vice President & 1984 Democratic Presidential Nominee Was 93

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Ted Johnson
·8 min read
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Walter Mondale, who transformed the role of the vice president during Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency, yet suffered a crushing political defeat as the Democratic nominee against incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984, has died. He was 93.

Mondale, often called by his nickname “Fritz,” died Monday in Minneapolis, his family said in a statement. No cause of death was given.

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“Today I mourn the passing of my dear friend Walter Mondale, who I consider the best vice president in our country’s history,” Carter said in a statement. “During our administration, 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 and still exists today.”

President Joe Biden said that he and his wife, Jill, spoke to Mondale and his family over the weekend.

“In accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, he described the values he was taught to live by: ‘to play by the rules; to tell the truth; to obey the law; to care for others; to love our country; to cherish our faith,'” Biden said in a statement. “As a Senator, an Ambassador, a Vice President, and a candidate for President, he lived and spread those values.”

Exemplifying an Upper Midwest modesty and Norwegian good humor, Mondale nevertheless was among the powerful and prominent group of Minnesota politicians on the national stage in the 1960s and ’70s, who also included fellow senators Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.

In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Carter tapped Mondale, then in his second term as U.S. senator, to be his running mate against incumbent Gerald Ford. His selection was more as a geographic counterweight to Carter, from Georgia, than an ideological one. Both were regarded as centrists and of the same generation.

The ticket defeated Ford — who had taken office after Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 — and his running mate, Bob Dole, and came into office with the promise of restoring truth and integrity to politics following Watergate.

Mondale created a much different role as vice president than many of his predecessors, who typically were marginalized and left out of the commander-in-chief’s inner circle.

About a month after the election, Mondale wrote a memo to Carter in which he said that the vice president generally “has performed a role characterized by ambiguity, disappointment, even antagonism.” Mondale needed only look to the experience of Humphrey, his political mentor, for his experience as vice president during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

What Mondale proposed was a role as a “general advisor,” with access to intelligence briefings, participation in key meetings, and regular weekly one-on-ones with the president, among other things. He also pitched the role of the vice president as one of troubleshooter, taking on investigative projects and helping to settle disputes between Executive Branch departments. Carter took to the idea and even gave Mondale a West Wing office, establishing the relationship that vice presidents have enjoyed during administrations since then.

But Carter quickly ran up against the realities of Washington, as his administration got into rifts with Congress, even with its sizable Democratic majorities. Carter’s signature foreign policy success — a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt — was eclipsed by the Iran hostage crisis. By 1980, Carter faced a challenge from the left from Edward Kennedy, creating a serious divide in the party, while Republicans were coalescing around charismatic ex-actor and former California governor Ronald Reagan. Carter also faced a sputtering economy, producing what has been called stagflation, or a period of low growth but rising prices.

After Carter was defeated soundly that fall, Mondale quickly emerged as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the next presidential election in 1984.

Then, Mondale faced a formidable field of primary rivals, including John Glenn and Jesse Jackson, but his most serious challenge came from Gary Hart, a relatively new face who presented himself as a forward-thinking candidate of new ideas. He won a stunning upset in the New Hampshire primary, but Mondale, backed by much of the party establishment, survived the challenge. He revived his fortunes in part by using the slogan from Wendy’s fast-food chain to attack Hart’s lack of policy specifics: “Where’s the beef?”

Facing a November race against a popular president, Mondale decided to make history with his choice of a running mate: Geraldine Ferraro, then serving in the House of Representatives, the first woman to be on a major-party ticket.

But Mondale and Ferraro struggled to make a dent in Reagan’s polling lead, as the incumbent president’s campaign presented a sunny vision, dubbed “Morning in America,” while Mondale focused on the expanding deficit, the nuclear arms race and, at the Democratic convention, the need to raise taxes. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did,” Mondale said in the most-quoted line of his acceptance speech.

Mondale was trounced in the election, winning only the state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, in what was the worst defeat ever for a Democratic presidential candidate.

“He was selling ‘Morning in America,’ and I was selling a root canal,” Mondale later wrote in his memoirs.

He told the Star Tribune in 2019 that in the aftermath of the loss, “I had a stack of books next to my bed, and I’d read sometimes all night because I couldn’t sleep. And Joan used to get mad at me, and I said, ‘You know, I think this is the best way to do it.’ Then finally I was only reading half the night, and then a third of the night. But it took me some time to be normal. I mean, it hurt.”

Decades later, though, he pointed to the choice of Ferraro as one of his legacies, helping to clear the way for other female candidates to run for national office.

Mondale then receded from elective politics, joining a Minneapolis law firm while serving on corporate and non-profit boards. He returned to government service in 1993, when President Bill Clinton selected him as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

He at times considered trying for a return to the Senate, taking a page from Humphrey, who was re-elected to the Senate after his vice presidential tenure. After Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a 2002 plane crash, just weeks before the election, Mondale agreed to run for his seat. But he lost narrowly to Norm Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul.

Mondale was born on January 5, 1928, in the small southern Minnesota community of Elmore. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science, he served in the U.S. Army for two years. He went on to get a law degree from the U of M and then went into private practice.

During that period he got active in working on political campaigns, including that of Minnesota’s governor, Orville Freeman, who in 1960 appointed him to be the state’s attorney general. Four years later, Mondale was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Humphrey when he became vice president to Lyndon Johnson and was elected to the seat in 1966. He easily beat his opponent for re-election in 1972 in an otherwise landslide year in the presidential race, as Nixon won the state, the last Republican to do so.

Mondale’s family said that one of his proudest achievements was as a leader in the effort to pass the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“We are grateful that he had the opportunity to see the emergence of another generation of civil rights reckoning in the past months,” his family said, referring to the national conversation following the death of George Floyd in Mondale’s home city.

Almost 37 years after Mondale selected Ferraro as his running made, Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the first female vice president. In a statement, Harris said that she spoke to Mondale a few days ago and thanked him “for his service and his steadfastness.” Of his selection of Ferraro, Harris said, “With that nomination, Vice President Mondale opened ‘a new door to the future,’ to borrow his words.”

Mondale is survived by two sons, Ted, a former state senator, and William Hall, an attorney, and six grandchildren. Mondale’s daughter, television personality and talk host Eleanor Mondale, died of brain cancer in 2011. His wife of 58 years, Joan Mondale, an arts advocate, died in 2014.

Into his 90s, Mondale continued to work at a downtown Minneapolis law firm and keep an active schedule, serving as a kind of elder statesman and mentor to current politicians. In 2018, he attended the swearing-in ceremony for Tina Smith when she was appointed to fill Al Franken’s Senate seat, and he endorsed the state’s other senator, Amy Klobuchar, when she ran for president in 2020.

After he and Carter were defeated in 1980, Mondale, as president of the Senate, presided over the congressional count of electoral votes.

Smiling, Mondale said, “Walter F. Mondale of the state of Minnesota has received 49 votes.” For his good humor, the chamber erupted into applause and gave him a standing ovation.

“A landslide. I did it,” Mondale quipped.

Mondale’s vice presidency was just one term, but he described the legacy of the Carter administration this way: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace.”

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