Walter Mondale, Former Vice President and Presidential Candidate, Dead at 93

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Jon Blistein
·5 min read
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Walter Mondale, the prominent late-20th-century Democrat who served as Jimmy Carter’s vice president and lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, died Monday, April 19th, at his home in Minneapolis, The New York Times reports. He was 93.

A spokesman for Mondale’s family confirmed his death but did not reveal a cause. Mondale reportedly spent the weekend speaking with Carter, President Joe Biden, and First Lady Jill Biden, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also sent a farewell email to former staffers. Memorials are currently being planned in both Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

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A statement from Mondale’s family highlighted his public-policy legacy, including ushering through the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. “Beyond his commitment to public service, our dad was committed to our family, and we will miss him more than words can capture,” the statement said.

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Mondale was born in southern Minnesota in 1928; his father was a farmer and Methodist minister, while his mother worked as a musician and piano teacher. Referred to often by his nickname “Fritz,” Mondale spent high school more focused on football than academics, but he ultimately graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1951 with a degree in political science. Mondale’s early political views were inspired by his father, and he joined the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, where he worked for, and ultimately grew close with, another future vice president and presidential hopeful, Hubert Humphrey.

Following a stint in the Army, Mondale returned to the University of Minnesota for law school. He practiced law in Minneapolis until 1960, when the state’s attorney general resigned and the governor, Orville L. Freeman, tapped the then 32-year-old Mondale to fill the post (Mondale had worked as a campaign manager for Freeman). Mondale would go on to win two attorney general elections, and by 1964, he was heading committees at the Democratic National Convention. After Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election, with Humphrey as his VP, Mondale was tapped to fill Humphrey’s Minnesota Senate seat. Humphrey swore him in at the hospital where Mondale had just undergone an emergency appendectomy.

Mondale spent 12 years in the Senate and was a staunch supporter of Johnson’s Great Society policies, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act. He ushered in a change that made it easier for the Senate to cut off a filibuster with 60 votes, as opposed to a two-thirds vote, while he also advocated for other liberal programs in education, health care, and desegregation.

In the mid-Seventies, Mondale began eyeing a presidential run, but he struggled to make a real impact (he joked in a 2010 interview with The Times, “I remember that after a year I was running six points behind ‘Don’t Know’”). In 1976, however, Carter asked Mondale to be his vice president, promising him he would get to be a legitimate partner in the White House and not just a ceremonial figurehead.

As vice president, Mondale worked on Middle East peace negotiations and ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, while he also helped resettle Vietnam War refugees and advocated for affirmative action. But he also began to clash with the more conservative Carter, who began to cut spending amid the economic turmoil and gas crises of the late Seventies. In 1979, Mondale famously and fiercely advocated against Carter giving a televised speech about a “crisis of confidence” in America; Carter went ahead with the so-called malaise speech, and not long after his poll numbers plummeted. The following year, Ronald Reagan beat Carter in a landslide.

After leaving the White House, Mondale began practicing law again, reportedly facilitating business deals for clients in countries where he knew the leadership. He also began prepping for his second stab at the presidency, and in 1984, he secured the Democratic nomination after a competitive primary against Colorado’s Sen. Gary Hart. Mondale then made history when he selected Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first woman ever to appear on a major-party ticket.

Reagan’s popularity at the time, however, was sky-high. A brief window of opportunity appeared after the 73-year-old president delivered a rambling first debate performance, during which he inadvertently revealed CIA involvement in Nicaragua that would later blow up in the Iran-Contra scandal. But during the second debate, Reagan rebounded with a line about his age that would put the final nail in Mondale’s coffin weeks before the actual election: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Mondale received only 40 percent of the popular vote and the only electoral votes he picked up were in his home state of Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

After the election, Mondale returned to practicing law in Minnesota, while also teaching and writing as a fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. In 1992, Bill Clinton tapped him to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan, and in 1998, he was named as a special envoy to Indonesia.

Mondale was unexpectedly thrust into electoral politics in 2002 when he was asked to run for Senate in Minnesota after incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the election. A bevy of partisan speeches at Wellstone’s memorial service, however, turned off voters, and Mondale lost to Republican Norman Coleman.

Despite the loss, Mondale seemed energized by the race in a way and embraced his role as an elder statesman of the Democratic Party. “I’m a liberal or a progressive,” he told The Times. “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.”

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