Walter Mondale, former vice president, dies at 93

Dartunorro Clark and Alex Johnson and Tim Stelloh
·6 min read
Walter Mondale, former vice president, dies at 93

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a close adviser to President Jimmy Carter who lost his own presidential race, died Monday. He was 93.

"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 Monday night.

Mondale was credited with making the office more relevant. He was Carter's vice president from 1977 to 1981. He also was a U.S. senator from Minnesota.

"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," said Carter, who called him an "invaluable partner."

Image: Vice President Walter Mondale and President Jimmy Carter in 1978 (White House via CNP / Getty Images file)
Image: Vice President Walter Mondale and President Jimmy Carter in 1978 (White House via CNP / Getty Images file)

In a statement, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden called Mondale one of “our nation’s most dedicated patriots” who, as a senator, was instrumental in passing landmark legislation like the Fair Housing Act and Title IX.

“There here have been few senators, before or since, who commanded such universal respect,” they said.

He ran as the Democratic presidential nominee against Ronald Reagan in 1984. He lost in one of the most lopsided electoral victories in modern American politics, winning only his home state, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia.

Related: Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a close adviser to President Jimmy Carter who lost his own presidential race, died Monday. He was 93.

Mondale started his career as an activist in Minnesota’s Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, then by working on Hubert Humphrey's Senate campaign in 1948. He graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1956 and was the state's attorney general from 1960 until he was appointed to the Senate in 1964 to finish Humphrey's term after he became Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president.

Mondale was elected to the Senate in 1966 and again in 1972.

In a relatively short 12-year Senate career, Mondale was at the center of a number of reforms that reshaped how Congress voted, allocated the national budget and sought to protect lower-income and minority Americans. Mondale was the driving force behind the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in housing, and he helped to pass the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which created the Congressional Budget Office. He helped lead the effort to amend the cloture process to make it easier to end filibusters — the 60-vote rule still in effect today.

As chair of the domestic task force of the Church Committee — the special committee led in 1975 by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to investigate abuses by government agencies like the FBI, the CIA and the IRS — Mondale oversaw investigations of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., building a national profile that propelled him into the discussion about contenders for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

Image: Carter and Mondale with Wives (Owen Franken / Corbis via Getty Images file)
Image: Carter and Mondale with Wives (Owen Franken / Corbis via Getty Images file)

Mondale decided against running then because he wasn't able to gain any traction crisscrossing the country and trying to raise money. But Carter saw Mondale's heritage as a New Deal Democrat from the North as an important balance for his brand of moderate Southern politics. Mondale's key role brokering an agreement in a fight over Mississippi's delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention led to the prohibition of segregated delegations, presaging the reforms that reshaped Democratic presidential politics, an important factor in Carter's nomination 12 years later.

"Fritz did most of the talking," Carter said in 2015 about their initial conversations about Mondale's joining the ticket.

Mondale was a key adviser as Carter's No. 2 once in office, particularly in the negotiations between Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that resulted in the Camp David Accords.

Mondale was also the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing of the White House, where he became one of the most influential vice presidents to that point in American history and an important liaison to Congress for a president with few national Washington connections.

Mondale was the point man for the U.S. efforts to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam after the Vietnam War, and he led the delegation to Beijing that expanded U.S. relations with China. Carter appointed Mondale to lead the U.S. delegation to meet with South African Prime Minister John Vorster to declare the U.S.'s opposition to apartheid. And he had Mondale's famous observation that "we told the truth, we obeyed the law and we kept the peace" inscribed on the wall of the Carter Center in Atlanta.

However, the Carter-Mondale ticket was defeated for re-election in 1980 by Reagan.

When Mondale got the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, he made history when he chose Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, making her the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party. However, they, too, were defeated by the Reagan ticket.

Mondale practiced law until he was appointed ambassador to Japan in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. In 2002, Paul Wellstone, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, died in a plane crash while campaigning, and the party nominated Mondale to take his place on the ballot, but he lost the election to Norm Coleman.

His wife of 58 years, Joan, died in 2014 at age 83 after a long illness. Mondale also successfully underwent heart surgery in 2014. His daughter, Eleanor, died in 2011 after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

In 2010, Mondale published a memoir titled "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics."

Political dignitaries honored Mondale in statements late Monday, remembering him for his progressive politics and public service.

Vice President Kamala Harris said that she had spoken with Mondale "a few days ago" and that he was always "so generous with his wit and wisdom over the years."

"Each time I open my desk drawer and see his signature there, alongside the signatures of 11 other Vice Presidents, I will be reminded of and grateful for Vice President Mondale’s life of service," she said in a statement.

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Former President Barack Obama also honored Mondale in a tweet, saying he "championed progressive causes" and redefined the office of vice president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., remembered him in a statement as an “icon of honor and decency” who helped broker a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David Accords of 1978.

“His passing is a sad and great loss for our nation,” she said.

Before his death, Mondale wrote a letter to his team thanking them for their service, which his family shared with NBC News.

"Well, my time has come. 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!" he wrote. "Together we have accomplished so much and I know you will keep up the good fight. Joe in the White House certainly helps. I always knew it would be okay if I arrived some place and was greeted by one of you! My best to all of you!"