Minnesota’s Walter Mondale, who died Monday night at 93, was the embodiment of a strand of full-throated liberalism that defined the Democratic Party for much of the last half of the twentieth century.
Like his mentor Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, Mondale grew up in a speck on the map where the Upper Midwest drifts into the Great Plains. That swatch of rural America produced three losing Democratic presidential nominees during the 16 years from 1968 to 1984.
As Mondale wrote in his spritely 2010 autobiography, The Good Fight, “My parents, both small-town Midwesterners, loved Franklin Roosevelt and Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota’s great Farmer-Labor governor.” He went on to recall that his father, a financially pinched Methodist minister and the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, “read voraciously [and] subscribed to progressive magazines such as the Nation and the New Republic.”
Place mattered to these men. Rural life, particularly during the Depression, depended on an activist government. And the area embraced both a socialist sensibility imported from Scandinavia and an American-made agrarian populism.
Many of the articles and tributes Mondale has received in the last day understandably focus on his pioneering role in creating the activist vice presidency under Jimmy Carter and, of course, his doomed presidential race against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Obituaries can only dwell on so much—and, as a consequence, Mondale’s Senate career has gotten less attention than it deserves.
Appointed in 1964 to the seat that Humphrey vacated when he became Lyndon Johnson’s much-abused vice president, Mondale thrived as a junior senator because he followed the deportment lessons from his mentor. As Mondale put it, “Humphrey had gone to Washington 16 years earlier blazing away, giving speeches and telling his elders how to turn things around—and he advised me pointedly not to follow his example.”
Mondale’s liberalism in the Senate was far more than just an ideologically pure voting record. He led the fight to curtail the filibuster—and partly succeeded, lowering the threshold to cut off debate from 67 to 60 votes. Mondale’s most prescient and far-reaching cause was championing the drive for universal federally funded preschool daycare programs that emphasized education rather than just custodial care. In late 1971, Mondale’s legislation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, passed Congress with comfortable bipartisan majorities in both houses.
Richard Nixon, in a stunning turnabout, vetoed it. Buried within the veto message was one of the opening salvos in the culture wars that were to transform national politics during the half-century following 1971. Nixon, on advice from his socially conservative speechwriter Pat Buchanan, warned against committing “the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over the family-centered approach.” In Nixon’s and Buchanan’s telling, federally funded daycare—which would have liberated generations of women—was really a socialist plot to destroy the nuclear family.
Subsequent history blurred the visionary nature of Mondale’s liberalism in the Senate. By not running for president in 1976 (“I don’t want to spend the next two years in Holiday Inns,” he memorably said at the time), Mondale lost a chance to articulate his own platform for the future of the Democratic Party. He was powerful as vice president—the first occupant of that office not to spend his life attending second-tier international funerals and championing third-tier administration causes—but he was always in Carter’s shadow.
When Mondale finally ran for president in 1984, he first had to combat tired journalistic clichés about whether he had the “fire in his belly” to fight for the job. (Embarrassing confession: I used that expression more than once writing about the campaign for Newsweek.) During the primaries, Mondale ran as the candidate of the Democratic establishment while the political energy flowed to the underdog candidacy of Gary Hart and his “new ideas.” (Yes, these were the same ideas that Mondale successfully belittled in a debate by quoting a Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?”) New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s mother memorably encapsulated Mondale’s image problem by likening the former vice president to the blandest Italian food imaginable: polenta.
The mood at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, as I recall, reflected the forced gaiety of a party that knows it is doomed. Ronald Reagan and his “morning in America” was too popular—and the Democratic Party, after its landslide defeat in 1980, was too lost to know what to do about it. It is telling that Cuomo delivered the most memorable speech at the convention, instead of Mondale. In fact, there were moments when it seemed like a Draft Cuomo effort could erupt at any minute.
But even at the convention, few could imagine the magnitude of Mondale’s coming 49-state wipeout, in which he barely carried Minnesota. His groundbreaking choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate ran into two weeks of controversy over the iffy real estate dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. But more than anything, Mondale suffered from a campaign heavy on consultants and often lacking in authenticity. “Something about those last days was also liberating,” Mondale wrote, recalling the final week of the campaign. “I could throw away the strategy memos and the media coaching and go out in front of the people and speak from the heart.”
That, in essence, is the epitaph of the last old-fashioned liberal to be nominated for president. Only when landslide defeat was looming did Mondale feel free to “speak from the heart.” The man who envisioned universal daycare and battled the filibuster in the cause of civil rights—the heir to a rural liberal populism that once defined his party—spent the bulk of his lone campaign for the presidency pretending to be more centrist than he was in his heart.
Make no mistake: Mondale was an honorable man, a dedicated public servant who left an enduring imprint on the vice presidency and the Senate. But he was also in many ways, sadly, the last of his kind. And America and the Democratic Party should deeply miss both the man and what he stood for.