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Obituary

Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, dies at 93

Former Vice President Walter Mondale during an interview on Dec. 12, 1983.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale during an interview on Dec. 12, 1983.GEORGE TAMES/NYT

Walter F. Mondale, who as the Democratic nominee for president in 1984 put the first woman on a major-party ticket, with US Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, but lost to Ronald Reagan by the largest Electoral College margin in US history, died Monday. The former vice president was 93.

The death of Mr. Mondale, who also served as senator, ambassador, and Minnesota attorney general, was announced in a statement from his family. No cause was cited.

Mr. Mondale, who served as senator from Minnesota from 1964-1977 and then as vice president under Jimmy Carter, was a protege of Hubert H. Humphrey, himself a Democratic senator from Minnesota who served a single term as vice president. It was, in fact, Humphrey’s Senate seat to which Mr. Mondale was appointed when Humphrey was elected vice president in 1964.

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Although they shared a profound commitment to liberalism, the two very much differed in personality. Policy and process were Mr. Mondale’s strong suits, not passion and colorfulness. Eugene McCarthy, his Senate colleague from Minnesota, described him as “the toothpaste in a plastic bag with a brush.” McCarthy saw Mr. Mondale as a rival, but even supporters acknowledged his drab public image. New York Governor Mario Cuomo likened him to an Italian cornmeal dish. “My mother thinks Mondale is polenta,” he said in 1983. “You know polenta, it’s quite bland.”

In many ways, Mr. Mondale, who carried “Fritz’' as a nickname, seemed as much civil servant as politician. Caution and idealism, rather than zeal and self-advancement, were his touchstones. For all three elective offices he held — attorney general of Minnesota, US senator, and vice president — he was either first appointed to or selected for. “He has the uncanny good luck of being able to be at a certain point at a certain time,” Humphrey once said, “and the time and the point are both right for the circumstances.”

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When Mr. Mondale did finally pursue a new office unaided, the circumstances had very much changed. His opponent, Reagan, personified an ascendant conservatism. “It’s morning in America,” his television ads proclaimed, highlighting a national feel-good mood fueled by the end of a harsh recession and US dominance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Mr. Mondale was portrayed as the embodiment of a New Deal tradition increasingly seen as outdated. He continued another Democratic tradition, that of nominating progressive or populist candidates from the Midwest — William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson, Humphrey, George McGovern — none of whom reached the White House. It took another 24 years for that tradition to end, with the victory of Barack Obama. Worst of all, Mr. Mondale was closely associated with Carter, the opponent Reagan had trounced four years earlier.

“Looking back at it,” Mr. Mondale told the Associated Press in 1996, “I don’t think there was a meaningful chance I was going to win.”

It was, of course, the Carter connection that had positioned Mr. Mondale to be the Democratic nominee in 1984. He had very publicly flirted with running for the White House in 1976, then chosen not to. This led some to question whether Mr. Mondale had, as Humphrey put it, the requisite “fire in his belly” to seek the presidency.

Jimmy Carter and Mr. Mondale joined hands to accept the cheers of the delegates after they gave their acceptance speeches to the Democratic National Convention in 1976.
Jimmy Carter and Mr. Mondale joined hands to accept the cheers of the delegates after they gave their acceptance speeches to the Democratic National Convention in 1976..

Yet Carter’s choosing Mr. Mondale as his No. 2 for a “Grits and Fritz” ticket put him back in the presidential equation. Mr. Mondale balanced the ticket geographically and ideologically. He also brought some badly needed inside-the-Beltway experience to a candidate who had made being a Washington outsider fundamental to his appeal.

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Once elected, Carter put that experience to real use. “This time it’s going to be different,” he said of the history of presidents ignoring vice presidents. No Throttlebottom, Mr. Mondale instead served, in Carter’s words, as an “assistant president” and “full-scale partner.” They worked together more closely than any previous president and vice president. Mr. Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing of the White House, as well as to have a weekly one-on-one lunch with the president.

In a statement Monday night, Carter said he considered Mr. Mondale “the best vice president in our country’s history.” He added: “Fritz Mondale provided us all with a model for public service and private behavior.”

In effect, Carter and Mr. Mondale created a new template for the role a vice president might play, a template subsequent administrations would follow.

The second of three sons, Walter Frederick Mondale was born in Ceylon, Minn., on Jan. 5, 1928. His father, Theodore S. Mondale, was a Methodist minister, whom Mr. Mondale once described as a “purist populist.” His mother, Claribel Hope (Cowan) Mondale, was a music teacher.

Mr. Mondale attended Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., interrupting his studies to work for Humphrey’s 1948 Senate campaign and then go to Washington as executive secretary of Students for Democratic Action, an offshoot of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action.

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After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Mr. Mondale enlisted in the Army in 1951. He entered the University of Minnesota Law School two years later, receiving his law degree in 1956. He worked in private practice, while maintaining his ties with Minnesota’s Democratic leadership.

A year earlier, he married Joan Adams, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She died in 2014, three years after their daughter, Eleanor Mondale Poling died of brain cancer. Mr. Mondale leaves two children, Theodore and William, both of the Twin Cities area; and a brother, according to The Washington Post.

Mr. Mondale and his wife, Joan, thanked the delegates  following his nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Mr. Mondale and his wife, Joan, thanked the delegates following his nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Uncredited

Mr. Mondale managed Governor Orville Freeman’s reelection campaign in 1958. Two years later, Freeman appointed him attorney general when the incumbent resigned. In 1998, Mr. Mondale’s son Ted would seek to run for the Democratic nomination for governor of Minnesota against Humphrey’s son and Freeman’s. Skip Humphrey won.

Mr. Mondale, who won reelection in 1962, drew national attention when he persuaded 23 other attorneys general to join him in filing a Supreme Court brief on behalf of Clarence Gideon, a Florida convict suing to overturn his conviction on the grounds he’d been denied proper legal counsel because of his indigence. The resulting decision in Gideon’s favor was a landmark in constitutional law.

Mr. Mondale’s staid manner masked a sly, often self-deprecating wit. He once spoke at the National Press Club in favor of the proposition, “Resolved: It’s easier to be appointed than elected to the US Senate.”

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Mr. Mondale strongly supported the Johnson administration. This posed increasing problems as regarded the Vietnam War, which Mr. Mondale did not publicly oppose until 1968. He later called his slowness to criticize the war — the result of his loyalty to Humphrey — the worst mistake of his political career.

Supporting the administration domestically proved to be far easier. Mr. Mondale’s ardent liberalism made him a natural proponent of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. Mr. Mondale’s crucial role in earning passage of the open-housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 is generally considered his foremost legislative achievement.

It was a measure of Mr. Mondale’s growing prominence that George McGovern offered him the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1972. It was a measure of Mr. Mondale’s political acumen that he declined.

Mr. Mondale was the front-runner for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, so much so that pundits spoke of the effect of an “inevitability” factor on his campaign. Precisely because victory seemed all but ordained, Mr. Mondale would appear highly vulnerable should he not sew up the nomination quickly.

After winning the Iowa caucuses handily, Mr. Mondale lost the New Hampshire primary to Senator Gary Hart, Democrat of Colorado, by 12 percentage points, a stunning upset. Mr. Mondale then lost both the Maine and Vermont caucuses to Hart.

The race became an increasingly bitter struggle between the two men (with Jesse Jackson also still running, but with no real chance at the nomination). The media portrayed it as “special interests” (Mondale) vs. “new ideas” (Hart).

What Mr. Mondale most needed to win, Cuomo joked, was “to show he could say no to somebody.” What Hart needed was to show his ideas had substance, something Mr. Mondale highlighted to great effect in a candidates’ debate two days before the Super Tuesday set of primaries. “You know, when I hear your ideas,” he said to Hart, “I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?,’” referring to a then-popular television commercial for Wendy’s fast-food restaurants.

“It tells you something about marketing in politics,” Mr. Mondale told The Wall Street Journal in 1992. “I didn’t even know what the phrase meant. Someone came to me and said why don’t you say, ‘Where’s the beef?’ And I said to him, ‘What’s that mean?’”

Notwithstanding Mr. Mondale’s ignorance, the quip stuck. Hart won seven of the nine Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, but his campaign lost momentum. Mr. Mondale secured the nomination, though it would take three more, hard-fought months to do so.

Mr. Mondale held a widely-publicized search for a running mate, finally settling on Ferraro, a New York Democrat. Knowing he needed a bold stroke to reinvigorate his campaign, Mr. Mondale had chosen the first woman to run on a major-party national ticket, though that was not how he described his decision. “I looked for the best vice president,” he said, “and I found her in Gerry Ferraro.”

Representative Geraldine Ferraro and Mr. Mondale, on the Capitol steps in Madison, Wis., in October 1984.
Representative Geraldine Ferraro and Mr. Mondale, on the Capitol steps in Madison, Wis., in October 1984. Bill Snead/The Washington Post

Ferraro’s selection would be a mixed blessing, as questions about her husband’s finances and her own relative lack of experience would dog her for much of the campaign. Far worse were the consequences of Mr. Mondale’s other attempt at a bold move. “Let’s tell the truth,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Watching the speech on television, deputy Reagan campaign manager Lee Atwater had to ask his wife, “Did he really say what I thought he said?” It was a courageous and forthright declaration, but it won Mr. Mondale no votes.

The one glimmer of hope for the Mondale campaign came from Reagan’s erratic performance in the first of two debates. But the president regained his stride in the second debate when he remarked, “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The hopelessness of Mr. Mondale’s cause took its toll. The bags under his eyes became so pronounced that on Halloween reporters covering the candidate taped teabags under their eyes in mock tribute. Seven days later, he carried only Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Returning to Minnesota to practice law, Mr. Mondale toyed with running for the Senate in 1988 and 2000. He served as US ambassador to Japan from 1993-96. In 2002, he replaced US Senator Paul Wellstone as the Democratic candidate on the ballot when Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. After a week-long campaign, Mr. Mondale lost to former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman by 2 percentage points.

His campaign manager was Tina Smith. Appointed to replace US Senator Al Franken after his resignation, Smith had Mr. Mondale escort her to her at Smith’s 2018 swearing-in ceremony.

“Mondale was a giant not only because of the positions he held,’' Smith said Monday, “but because of the work that he did. He provided his strong, compassionate, clear, and fearless voice to the world for over six decades, and he never stopped.”



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.