In the Spotlight

News & Features

Mondale ready to run
By Dan Olson
Minnesota Public Radio
October 29, 2002


Walter Mondale has given Democrats the answer they were looking for. Mondale says he's ready to accept their plea to replace the late Sen. Paul Wellstone on the ballot. Mondale made his intent known in a letter to state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Erlandson. Democrats plan to meet Wednesday night to consider Wellstone's replacement, and state and national Democrats have made it clear they want Mondale.

Walter Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey in Minnesota House Chamber on Inauguration Day, 1975
(Minnesota Historical Society)

Walter Mondale served 13 years in the U. S. Senate, four years as vice president in the Carter administration. He ran for president in 1984, but lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, Mondale served four years as U. S. ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration.

"You never have exactly your way around here," Mondale said during an interview 1973.

By then Mondale had been a senator for nearly a decade. He'd focused on civil rights and child welfare legislation. The war in Vietnam was raging and had sapped the country's spirit. Mondale, first a supporter, had become an opponent of the war. He told a radio interviewer that life in the Senate swirled with the ingredients for cynicism and despair. But he said being a senator was too important to succumb to those emotions.

"Sometimes you become terribly disappointed. But this is the body which has something to say about war and peace, about the chance of justice in America, about our environment, about practically every aspect of American life," he said.

President Lyndon Johnson's economic strategy of guns and butter - simultaneously paying for a war and an array of domestic social programs - ran up a huge bill. The U. S. economy was teetering.

In 1976 Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won the party's nod for Democratic presidential candidate. Carter's selection of Mondale for a vice presidential running mate signaled a set of firsts -- 1976 marked the first-ever televised debate between vice presidential candidates.

President Carter gave Vice President Mondale responsibilities beyond those of anyone else who held the office in modern times. Mondale became the president's closest advisor on domestic policy. Human rights ranked high on the Carter-Mondale foreign policy agenda.

Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro campaigning in 1984. "I wanted to run for president in the worst way," Mondale said on the morning after their landslide defeat. "And that's just what I did."
(Minnesota Historical Society)

The Cold War with the former Soviet Union dominated.

In a 1979 speech, Vice President Mondale stumped for support for a treaty with the Soviets to reduce the burgeoning stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

"After 20 years of public life, what worries me most above all about the life our kids and their children will live, I have no trouble telling you what it is and that is the fear of nuclear holocaust," he said.

Carter dispatched Mondale to trouble spots around the world. In 1980, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was still in prison. It would be years before South Africa's white rulers recognized the civil and political rights of its black majority. Mondale told the country's white-led government that the U. S. would no longer support their form of government. In a 1980 interview, Mondale said African leaders welcomed the U.S. position toward South Africa.

"They understand that we not only imposed sanctions against military sales but that we went beyond the UN resolution and imposed sanctions against the sale for materials of police and security forces and the rest."

As Carter and Mondale prepared their bid for a second term in 1980, Mondale told Democrats at their national convention in New York that they offered a clear choice to Republicans who had met a month earlier in Detroit.

"Isolated in bubble of privilege from the city that hosted it, a comfortable convention, composed of America's wealthy, told us they symbolized the nation, a malaportioned convention where the cities were denied their share of the delegates told us they symbolized democracy," he said.

After losing their bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan and the father of the current president, Carter and Mondale began new careers. Mondale became a private practice attorney who lectured frequently.

Still a believer in the power of government to improve peoples lives, Mondale said government can also be an obstacle. In a 1981 speech before students at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Mondale remembered a run-in with a federal bureaucrat. Mondale had authored legislation making federal money available for child abuse prevention. None of the funds had found its way to any Minnesota programs. Mondale asked the bureaucrat why an American Indian program in Minneapolis, which he believed was qualified, had been denied.

"Well, he said, the law prohibits helping urban Indians. I said is that true? Show me the law! 'Oh,' he says, 'it's not in the law, it was in the minds of the framers.' I said, 'you're talking to the framer.' That guy was just out there running his own government," Mondale said.

In his 1984 presidential bid, Mondale put the first woman on a national ticket. He asked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. Once again, President Reagan won in a landslide. One of Mondale's memorable campaign moments came as he tried to explain to voters the difference between he and Reagan. Mondale said, "Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

President Reagan won in a landslide.

Mondale meets with reporters in the newsroom of Minnesota Public Radio after an appearance on MPR's Midday in January, 2000. Mondale served on the Minnesota Public Radio Board of Trustees. The staff had just presented him with a birthday cake on his 72nd birthday.

Once again Mondale returned to private life, practicing law and lecturing.

While ambassador to Japan, Mondale experienced the affection and the antipathy many country's have towards the U.S. He said people in other country's are often of two minds; they at once admire and despise our country for its wealth and power.

"How we deal with the rest of the world, the good sense and decency that we show toward others, the example we show of being decent and non-discriminatory, and fair and the rest is very important to our ability to influence the rest of the world," he said.

In 1991, Mondale supported the war against Iraq. In recent public statements Mondale has condemned Saddam Hussein's regime. A few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mondale stood with tens of thousands of other Minnesotan's at a rally at the Capitol in St. Paul.

He said the country should hold back from striking in anger and should take time to learn who the enemy was. He recounted the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Iranian revolutionaries seized dozens of American's and held them captive for more than a year.

"We spent days thinking about ways we could punish them for that uncivilized act and get our people home, but we couldn't find a single target that we could use that wouldn't kill thousands of innocent people and risk the lives of our hostages, you can get into fiendish dilemmas here," he said.

Walter Mondale describes himself as an old fashioned New Deal Democrat. He's been away from the center of Congressional politics for decades.

Even so, political scientist Stephen Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis says if voters send Mondale back to the Senate, he'd be regarded as an elder statesman.

However, Smith says, the Senate has changed since Mondale was there 28 years ago. It's much more difficult to assemble coalitions to pass laws and it's much less collegial than during Mondale's time.

"Today many of these people are no more than acquaintances -- if even that -- so he'd be put at a disadvantage," according to Smith. "He's not going to be an immediate bridge builder. He's going to have to learn the Senate anew."

If selected by the DFL Central Committee to fill the vacancy on the ballot created by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, and if elected, Mondale would be the seventh former vice president, including his mentor Hubert Humphrey, to return the U. S. Senate.

More from MPR
  • An audio portrait MPR's Midday broadcast looks at famous Mondale speeches through his political career. (Oct. 30, 2002)
  • Audio: Mondale MPR's Elizabeth Stawicki interviewed Mondale on the occasion of the renaming of the U of M Law School hall in his name.
  • Campaign 2002: The race for the U.S. Senate