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Walter Mondale, who helped transform the vice president’s role into a trusted presidential adviser during Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency, but suffered a crushing political defeat as a Democratic presidential candidate against incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984, passed away.
Mondale, often referred to by his nickname “Fritz”, was 93 years old. His family announced his death in a statement, but no cause was given, according to the Associated Press.
“Today, I mourn the passing of my dear friend Walter Mondale, whom I consider to be the best vice president in the history of our country,” Carter said in a statement. “During our administration, Fritz used his political skills and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, political force that had never been seen before and that still exists today.”
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Illustrating an Upper Midwestern modesty and Norwegian good humor, Mondale was nonetheless part of the powerful and prominent group of Minnesota politicians on the national stage in the 1960s and 1970s, which also included fellow Senators Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.
In 1976, Democratic presidential candidate Carter hired Mondale, then in his second term as US senator, to be his running mate against incumbent President Gerald Ford. His selection was more of a geographic counterweight to Carter, a native of Georgia, than an ideological one. Both were considered centrists and of the same generation.
The ticket beat Ford – who had made the decision of Richard Nixon to resign from Watergate in August 1974 – and his running mate, Bob Dole, and took office with the promise of restoring the truth and integrity of politics after Watergate.
Mondale created a very different vice president role than many of his predecessors, who were generally marginalized and excluded from the inner circle of the Commander-in-Chief.
About a month after the election, Mondale wrote a note to Carter in which he said that the vice president had generally “played a role characterized by ambiguity, disappointment, even antagonism.” Mondale need only look to the experience of Humphrey, his political mentor, for his experience as vice president during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
What Mondale proposed was a “general counsel” role, with access to intelligence briefings, attendance at key meetings, and regular weekly meetings with the President, among others. He also introduced the vice president’s role as that of a convenience store, taking on investigative projects and helping to resolve disputes between departments in the executive branch. Carter embraced the idea and even gave Mondale a West Wing office, establishing the relationship the Vice Presidents have enjoyed during administrations since then.
But Carter quickly clashed with the realities of Washington, as his administration broke with Congress, even with its sizable Democratic majorities. Carter’s signature foreign policy success – a peace deal between Israel and Egypt – has been overshadowed by the hostage crisis in Iran. In 1980, Carter faced a challenge from Edward Kennedy’s left, creating a serious wedge in the party, as Republicans rallied around charismatic former actor and former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Carter also faced a booming economy, producing what has been called stagflation, or a period of low growth but rising prices.
After Carter’s loss that fall, Mondale quickly became a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination four years later.
Then Mondale faced a formidable field of rivals including John Glenn and Jesse Jackson, but his most serious challenge came from Gary Hart, a relatively new face who presented him as the contender for the new idea before- goaltender, winning a stunning surprise in the New Hampshire Primary. Mondale, backed by much of the party establishment, survived the challenge, using Wendy’s fast food chain slogan to attack Hart’s lack of political specifics: “Where’s the beef?”
Faced with a November race against a popular president, Mondale decided to make history with her choice of a running mate: Geraldine Ferraro, then sitting in the House of Representatives, the first woman to be on a big party ticket .
But Mondale and Ferraro struggled to squeeze Reagan’s ballot head, as the incumbent president’s campaign featured a sunny vision dubbed “Morning in America,” while Mondale focused on the growing deficit, the nuclear arms race and, during the Democratic convention, the need to increase taxes. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Mondale was defeated in the election, winning only the state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, in what was the worst loss ever for a Democratic presidential candidate.
“He was selling ‘Morning in America’ and I was selling a root canal,” Mondale later wrote in her memoir.
He told the Star Tribune in 2019 that as a result of the loss, “I had a stack of books next to my bed and sometimes read all night because I couldn’t sleep, and Joan was mad at me and I was like: ‘you know, I think that’s the best way to do it. Then I only read half the night, then a third of the night, ”he says. “But it took me a while to be normal. I mean, it hurts.
Decades later, however, he highlighted Ferraro’s choice as one of his legacies, possibly paving the way for other female candidates to run for national elections.
After entering private practice in Minneapolis, Mondale strayed far from the national scene. He served as United States Ambassador to Japan during the administration of Bill Clinton.
He sometimes considered trying a return to the Senate, taking a page from Humphrey, who returned to the Senate after his tenure as vice-chair. After Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002, just weeks before the election, Mondale agreed to run for his seat. But he narrowly lost to Norm Coleman, the mayor of Saint-Paul.
Mondale was born in the small community of Elmore, in southern Minnesota, on January 5, 1928. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science, he served in the United States Army for two years. He then obtained a law degree from the U of M, then entered private practice.
During this time he began working on political campaigns, including that of Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, who in 1960 appointed him state attorney general. Four years later, Mondale was nominated to fill the seat left vacant by Humphrey when he became vice president, and was elected to the seat in 1966. He easily beat his opponent for re-election in 1972 in an otherwise overwhelming year. in the presidential race, as Richard Nixon won the state.
Mondale is survived by two sons, Ted, a former state senator, and William Hall, a lawyer, Mondale’s daughter, television personality and conference host Eleanor Mondale, died of brain cancer in 2011. His wife of 58 years, Joan Mondale, an artistic artist lawyer, died in 2014.
Into his 90s, Mondale continued to work at a downtown Minneapolis law firm and keep an active schedule, serving as a sort of older statesman for current politicians. In 2018, he attended Tina Smith’s swearing-in ceremony when she was appointed to take the seat of Al Franken, and he endorsed the other state senator, Amy Klobuchar, when she s ‘was presented to the presidency in 2000.