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The long political career of Walter Mondale

Mondale was appointed Minnesota attorney general at the age of thirty-two and remained active in politics and public policy for his entire life.

official portrait of vice president walter mondale
Vice President Walter Mondale
One of the most accomplished politicians in Minnesota history, Walter “Fritz” Mondale served as vice president under Jimmy Carter and ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign with running mate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. During his long career, he advanced consumer rights as Minnesota’s attorney general, maneuvered civil rights and procedural reform legislation as a U.S. senator, and revitalized the notoriously stagnant vice presidency during the Carter administration.

Mondale was born in the small rural community of Ceylon (Martin County) but grew up in Elmore, some thirty miles to the west. The foreclosure of his father’s farms in the 1920s influenced him as a young man, as did progressive politicians like Robert LaFolette, Floyd Olson, and Henrik Shipstead. While enrolled at Macalester College he volunteered as a canvasser for Hubert Humphrey’s mayoral re-election campaign in Minneapolis. Mondale proved a highly capable district organizer for Humphrey’s 1948 US Senate campaign.

The GI Bill allowed Mondale to attend the University of Minnesota Law School after serving at Fort Knox during the Korean War. He graduated in 1951, worked at a Minneapolis law firm, and then became the de-facto manager of Governor Orville Freeman’s re-election campaigns. This paid off for Mondale when Freeman’s attorney general abruptly resigned in 1960. At only thirty-two, Mondale was appointed to the second most powerful office in Minnesota. He then positioned himself to make valuable friendships and alliances, most famously with Hubert Humphrey.

As attorney general, Mondale focused on consumer rights. After winning a highly publicized charity embezzlement case, he went after out-of-state companies with records of fraud, passing statutes banning misleading sales practices. In 1962, he rallied other state attorneys general behind a Supreme Court case that affirmed the right to a public defender nationwide. Then, when Humphrey became Lyndon Johnson’s vice president in 1964, Mondale was appointed to his vacant senate seat.

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Though he lacked his predecessor’s oratory skills, Mondale proved himself an expert negotiator and political operator by pushing the controversial Fair Housing Act through the senate as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In the 1970s, he established a reputation as a reformer, supporting legislation for consumer protection, child care, poverty reform, public healthcare, and increased education spending. Nevertheless, he was the only Democrat on the Senate’s conservative-leaning Budget Committee. In 1975, he passed cloture reform, dropping the number of votes needed to end debates on the senate floor from a two-thirds majority to a three-fifths majority and making it harder for individual senators to filibuster bills out of existence without a vote.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter selected Mondale as his vice presidential running mate. He brought Northern support and Washington experience to the upstart Georgian’s campaign, impressing audiences with his in-depth understanding of foreign policy. He made it clear to Carter from the start that he wanted to infuse real meaning into the office of the vice president, where political careers traditionally went to die when presidents didn’t (Richard Nixon being the exception). To ensure that he would serve as a real asset to the president, Mondale reviewed every memo Carter did and was free to attend all meetings; he even had an office in the West Wing. The two discussed policy over lunch every Monday. While Mondale’s disagreements did not always translate into change, he never faced the political exile that Humphrey had suffered after privately disagreeing with Johnson over Vietnam.

Mondale’s most significant vice presidential achievements were in foreign policy. In 1977, he initiated talks with Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat ahead of the Camp David Accords. Though unsuccessful, Mondale’s negotiations over Black suffrage with South African Prime Minister Vorster helped establish a precedent of more straightforward detente with African nations during the Cold War. In 1979, Mondale rallied international aid for hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees expelled from their home countries for their ethnicity or for aiding American troops.

After Carter’s reelection campaign failed to overtake Ronald Reagan in 1980, Mondale practiced law in Chicago and studied public policy. He ran for president in 1984, selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. The pair campaigned against Reagan’s economic and military policies while promising to cut the federal deficit and pass the Equal Rights Amendment. In the end, his explicit promise to raise taxes, controversy over Ferraro’s tax returns, and Reagan’s popularity as an incumbent contributed to the worst Democratic loss in decades.

In 1992, Mondale served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Japan; in 2002 he ran a close but unsuccessful senatorial race on behalf of the late Paul Wellstone. Beginning in 1986, Mondale worked at the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey and Whitney while lecturing at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he left an endowed faculty chair.

Mondale died at home in Minneapolis on April 19, 2021. He was ninety-three years old.

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