In the early morning of April 20, I awoke in Taiwan to a dreaded phone call from Minnesota to learn about the passing of Walter “Fritz” Mondale, the former vice president to President Jimmy Carter. Born in Ceylon, a small town in southern Minnesota, Mondale lived to 93 — having also served as a Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, and ambassador to Japan.
Indeed, Mondale and I hardly had anything in common — except we were destined to share history through Ceylon and Taiwan. Like Mondale, I was born in Ceylon, which later changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972. Ceylon, Minnesota, was originally dubbed Chanhassen, but since that name was taken, a group of men gathered at the general store suggested Ceylon after the Ceylon tea sold there. It became Ceylon in 1899.
A friend of Mondale’s, the late Edward Burdick of the Minnesota House of Representatives who “adopted” me when I studied at the University of Minnesota, jokingly suggested that I asked “Fritz” to replace the name of his birthplace to Sri Lanka. When both Mondale and I received the Humphrey Leadership Award from the university in 1986, I asked him about it. With a smile, Mondale recommended that “Eddy” and I write to the city manager of Ceylon.
I first met Mondale in 1979 when I visited Washington after attending Perham High School in northern Minnesota on an American Field Service (AFS) scholarship. At that time in Washington, I also met with Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minnesota, and later served on his staff in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I also worked as a volunteer on the Mondale-Ferraro Presidential Campaign in 1984.
Despite their political differences, Boschwitz and Mondale personified the idea of “Minnesota Nice” that I experienced while living with Perhamites. Always down-to-earth, Mondale’s work ethic and niceties made him a quintessential Minnesotan.
Unlike his political opponents, Mondale always told the truth like George Washington, demonstrated kindness like Benjamin Franklin, spoke with egalitarian worldview like Thomas Jefferson, and was a self-made man like Alexander Hamilton — a prized amalgamation of the true sense of Americanism that is rarely visible today.
Mondale played a critical role in the shuttle diplomacy between Beijing and Washington when the United States severed its historic ties with Taiwan for China after the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979.
To counterbalance the Soviet Union, the Carter-Mondale administration switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, confirming the status of the island as part of the “One China” policy. The TRA established the non-diplomatic “American Institute in Taiwan” to manage trade, investment, and cultural exchanges with “the province of Taiwan.”
While visiting Beijing, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping complained to Mondale that the TRA made Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo “very cocky” and “caused his tail to raise very high.” Mondale replied, “I will report that to the President [Carter], and we will try to make him less cocky.” Trusted by everyone, the vice president served as an honest broker in delicate negotiations.
Moreover, when Deng remarked to Mondale, “You do not smoke nor do you drink very much” and inquired about his secret, Mondale replied: “I have absolutely no vices. I will also tell you the truth later,” causing laughter to erupt across the press corps audience.
The TRA remains the most consequential of Mondale’s many diplomatic engagements.
Mondale believed in servant leadership. He also had the conviction that the representative government should be as good as the American people. He taught us that we are simply the passing custodians from one generation to another. His servant leadership and Christian faith revived the founding vision of a “civil religion” for the destiny of the republic.
In all, Mondale was an illustrious public servant. Chinese philosopher Confucius said that “he who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star [lodestar], which keeps its place, and all the stars turn towards it.”
This Confucius-like wise man from Ceylon will forever be our nation’s genuine lodestar.
Patrick Mendis, Ph.D., a former Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is currently a distinguished visiting professor of culture and diplomacy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. He served as commissioner to the United States National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State and was the first recipient of the International Confucius Award. Mendis established the Edward Burdick Legislative Award at the University of Minnesota.
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