A documentary titled “Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story” (see if you can guess what it’s about) had its world premiere last night at the Minnesota History Center. Mondale was feted and spoke before and after the film and was celebrated during it.
Small-town southern Minnesota preacher’s kid, Humphrey protégé, Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, transformer of the vice presidency, Democratic nominee for president, sponsor of the first woman on a presidential ticket, ambassador to Japan, late-life emergency nominee for a Senate seat, doting husband and father, champion of civil rights and other good causes, the film tells a tale familiar to many Minnesotans and makes no pretense of objectivity (nor do I) about the greatest living Minnesotan.
Onstage after the showing, director Melody Gilbert told the audience how reluctant Mondale had been to participate in the project. “I was afraid it would be a hatchet job,” Mondale quipped. “But I think we avoided that.” He really is very drily funny, but not on television.
Gilbert told me that a one-hour version of the film will air on Twin Cities Public Television, although I’m not sure it has been scheduled yet. The film will be screened again at 7 tonight at the History Center. To reserve a free ticket, go here.
The vice presidency was considered an almost worthless position before Mondale. FDR’s first veep, John Nance Garner, who gave up the speakership of the House for it, famously said that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a warm bucket of spit” (that’s how the quote was always rendered when I was a lad, although if you Google it you’ll find that a saltier, more honest version is now often acknowledged).
Mondale, with the agreement of Jimmy Carter (who’s interviewed in the film), turned it into a sort of deputy presidency. Most vice presidents post-Mondale have had meaningful roles. Mondale has made no secret of his disapproval over the way the current occupant has expanded the power of the office.
Books have begun to be written on the topic, but it may be many memoirs and scholarly tomes before we figure out just how independent of a power center the vice presidency became under Dick Cheney. It is perhaps worth noting that neither Joe Biden nor Sarah Palin seems likely to follow that lead.