Former vice president Walter Mondale, longtime friend and often rival of Ted Kennedy, was sitting in a sports bar in Kodiak, Alaska, Thursday after a long, fruitful day of salmon fishing when there was a scroll across the bottom of the TV screens. Sen. Ted Kennedy had died.
Neither age — he’s 81 — nor distance could keep Mondale from doing what he felt he had to do.
“I gotta go,”’ he told his fishing companions.
He caught a red-eye flight out of Anchorage, leaving at about 9 p.m. Thursday. He arrived in Minneapolis at around 5:30 a.m. Friday, stopping at home so that he could hug his wife, take a quick nap and pick up a suit.
This was the second time in five years that Mondale’s annual trek to Alaska had been shortened by the death of a political giant. In 2004, he’d been fishing when he learned of the death of Ronald Reagan.
“I gotta go,”’ he’d said then, too.
“I come from a huge clan, but a lot of the people are growing very old,’’ I told him on Monday. “We have a family rule. ‘Never travel anywhere without a suit because you never know when there’s going to be a funeral.’ “
“I understand, but people in Alaska would think you’re pretty strange if you’re up there fishing in a suit,”’ he said.
Red-eye flights are not pleasant at any age. But Mondale admitted they’re getting harder.
“You’re so tired your head is like a stone,”’ he said. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Mondale arrived in Boston around 5:30 p.m., was greeted by a friend and together they went to the celebration of Kennedy’s life Friday night.
He mingled but did not speak.
“They had plenty of speakers,” Mondale said. “It was like the Senate itself. There were no time limits, but it was a wonderful evening.”
The following morning, he attended funeral services for Kennedy, then returned home with his thoughts of all the years the two had spent together.
“We were great friends,”’ said Mondale. “You look at our records, they’re almost identical. We were both socially progressive, we got to work together on the big issues of our time. Education, civil rights. He was a delight.”
But the two also often were rivals, both indirectly and directly. As far back as 1960 Mondale squared off against the Kennedys in presidential politics. Then — and always — Mondale was a supporter of Hubert Humphrey in the race for the Democratic nomination against young Jack Kennedy.
“But as soon as Hubert yielded, I was an enthusiastic Kennedy supporter,” Mondale said.
It was during that presidential race — Kennedy versus Richard Nixon — that the Kennedys gained a special fondness for Minnesota, Mondale said.
“Minnesota was the last state to decide for Kennedy,”’ Mondale said. “It was something like 3 in the morning and when that came in, Kennedy was elected.”
There would be many more Humphrey-Mondale-Kennedy clashes. In 1968, it was vice president Humphrey locked in a contest with Robert Kennedy, before RFK’s death. In 1980, Kennedy ran against the incumbent Carter-Mondale ticket, not conceding to the ticket until that year’s Democratic National Convention.
“There were times we’d be campaigning in the same towns,” Mondale recalled, “but I don’t think it was ever personal.”
In fact, when Mondale stepped in to the Senate race in 2002, to replace the late Paul Wellstone on the ticket in a Senate run against Norm Coleman, Kennedy was a constant cheerleader.
“I don’t think anyone called me more often,” recalled Mondale of that brief race. “When we had a debate, he called and said, ‘you sure cleaned him up,’ ” Mondale recalled. “And when I lost (the election) he called and said, ‘you know that everyone appreciates what you did by getting into the race.’ “
Kennedy’s death is a loss for everyone, especially those concerned with health care reform, Mondale said.
“Some of the things (in the health care debate) being stated as fact simply are not facts,” said Mondale. “It’s shameful. With Kennedy, in his good form, a lot of those things would have been short-lived. But beyond that, we’re going to need compromise to move us to a strong, new health system. He hasn’t been able to do the things he would have done to make that happen. He hasn’t been able to get involved — and now the hole is even bigger.”
Laughing warmly, Mondale said he learned two certain things from Humphrey and Kennedy: Never follow either of them to the podium.
“Kennedy’s a big man, a handsome guy,” Mondale said. “He had the big voice, the big smile the booming presence. He was what you call a room bender. If he gave a speech you didn’t want to follow him. Same with Hubert. You learned quickly to never follow Hubert.”