Walter Mondale is one of only 10 men alive today who have been where Barack Obama and John McCain are headed — and who know the unique feelings that come with the weighty honor of presidential standard-bearer for one of the nation’s two major parties.
The former vice president has been in the green room, a few steps away from giving the biggest speech of a political career.
“It seems like a long walk from that room to the podium,” Mondale recalled in an interview with MinnPost. “In the back of your mind, you know you are speaking to thousands of people in the auditorium and that there will be millions watching all over the world. If you screw it up, you know you’re going to live with it for the rest of your life.”
Mondale made his walk from green room to podium to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1984 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. He had won the nomination, with the overwhelming support of superdelegates, after a bruising campaign against Gary Hart. (This was the pre-Monkey Business Hart. That political problem didn’t explode until Hart’s 1987-88 campaign.)
The 1984 Democratic race was similar to this year’s race between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mondale had the Clinton role. The former Minnesota senator was seen as the insider candidate. Hart was more Obama-like, the candidate making promising, though vague, calls for change. Jesse Jackson also had been in the mix, attracting his Rainbow Coalition of people of color and the far left of the party.
So, like Obama and McCain, Mondale knew he needed to heal wounds within the party, as well as make his case to the rest of the country on why he should replace a popular sitting president, Ronald Reagan.
All of this was on his mind as he approached the podium.
Millions of possibilities to ponder
And there were a million small things, too. From experience, Mondale knew that just about anything could go wrong.
In New York, in 1980, when he was the vice president of incumbent President Jimmy Carter, he had gone to the podium to give his speech and discovered, to his horror, that the lights were shining so brightly on the podium that they washed out the words on the early version of the teleprompter.
“It got better as the speech went along, but the words were totally washed out as you started your speech,” Mondale recalled. “I walked off the stage and I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re not going to be able to read the text when you start your speech.’ ” It turns out that situation may have helped produce one of the most famous political flubs of modern times. That, Mondale recalled, was the occasion when Carter “made the reference to ‘Huuuu-bert … Horaaaatio … Hornblower! Umm. Humphrey.’ ”
Mondale also knew the story of the woes of former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, who had been picked to give the nominating speech for John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Convention. In those pre-teleprompter days, politicians used a machine that rolled the speech text across the desk top of the podium.
“If anything went wrong, Freeman was supposed to rub his shoe across the back of his leg and the people behind him would get the machine running again,” said Mondale. “The machine stopped working, Orville was rubbing his foot on his leg, but nobody was looking. He had to wing it.”
Mondale, now 80 years old and still working as an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney in a small corner office in downtown Minneapolis, will be a Minnesota delegate at this year’s Democratic National Convention. Among other things, the former vice president will play a role as a host of an event called the International Leaders Forum, which will be held the day before the Denver convention begins. The former Clinton supporter also expects to meet with Obama’s campaign strategists.
‘Anxious but not terrified’
He laughs now at the memories of the pressure he felt in 1984. But he wasn’t laughing as he approached the podium in San Francisco. There was so much at stake.
“I guess you could say I was anxious,” he said.
But not terrified. For example, giving that huge speech wasn’t nearly so terrifying as playing a cello recital when he was growing up in Ceylon, Minn.
“I had reason to be scared then,” said Mondale. “I was no good on the cello.”
As he prepared to face the crowd and the cameras, Mondale was confident of a couple of things.
“You’re a little relaxed because the nomination fight is over,” he said. “You either grow or shrink as the campaign goes on. I felt I had grown.”
Plus, he liked his speech, though the one he gave in San Francisco was a re-write of the version he and his speechwriters had sweated over for weeks.
“A couple of days before the speech, I decided I didn’t like it,” Mondale recalled. “We tightened it. It needed to be exactly what I wanted to say, and it had to be tight.”
After the quickie re-write, Mondale showed it to his wife, Joan.
“She went over it and liked it,” he said.
But the speech wasn’t the only thing Mondale had to deal with in the week of his nomination. There was campaign planning to do. There was peacemaking to be done among factions in the party. And, there were egos to massage.
Example: Mondale had selected New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to give the keynote address to the convention.
“I wanted him because I knew he’d do a good job,” said Mondale. “I knew he could make the case for the America I believed in.”
But a couple of days before the convention, Cuomo received a call from Sen. Ted Kennedy.
“He said to Mario, ‘Would you defer to me and let me give the speech?’ ” Mondale recalled. “Mario didn’t know what to do, so he called me. ‘Kennedy wants me to defer to him.’ I told Mario, ‘I picked you for a reason. You give the speech.’ ”
And, in fact, Cuomo gave one of the most ringing speeches ever heard at a convention. It’s a speech rated on many top 100 lists.
This was the convention when Jesse Jackson also spoke and electrified the crowd. “Our time has come!” Jackson said.
Following Cuomo, Jesse Jackson speeches no easy task
Mondale, not a great orator, was not intimidated by the fact that he was following two great speakers.
“The tone of the convention was just right,” he said. “There was genuine excitement because of Geraldine Ferraro (the first and, to date, only, woman ever selected to run as a vice president). We had gone into the convention trailing (Reagan) but each night we were picking up 5 or 6 points.”
The stage, then, was set for Mondale. Wanting to look presidential, he had a new suit, purchased off the rack.
“Probably blue,” he said, laughing. “They used to say I dressed full Norwegian. Blue or white shirt, red tie, blue suit. Once, when I was vice president, some magazine called me the best dressed politician in America. I got a call from Humphrey. His voice was really weak (from cancer) by then, but he was laughing and he said, ‘Now I know I can’t believe everything you read.’ ”
Anyhow, this was the moment. The delegates were roaring. There were banners and cheers and excitement.
“It’s no different now,” Mondale said. “You know this is the ONE time you’ll have to state your case to the world. There is no question-and-answer period. There’s no debate. This is your chance.”
He sipped some water in the green room. (“You don’t eat anything for several hours before a speech like that,” Mondale said. “You don’t want to be going ‘errrp’ in the middle of your speech.”)
Mondale was accompanied by Joan to the podium. The crowd — hugely diverse — roared.
“It felt good to look out over the crowd,” recalled Mondale. “I was proud of how we’d changed the party. When I was a young man, it was all white males, even at the Democratic Convention. The women would hold some kind of a tea or something, and that was it. We’d changed that. It was an impressive sight.”
As he waved and smiled, Mondale reminded himself, “Don’t rush it, start slowly. Try to get the voice you want. Look around at the audience. Get a rhythm.”
He began his speech.
“My fellow Democrats, my fellow Americans. I accept your nomination. Behind us now is the most wide open race in political history …”
Much to his relief, he grabbed his audience quickly.
“I do not envy the drowsy harmony of the Republican Party,” he said to cheers. “They squelch debate; we welcome it. They deny differences; we bridge them. They are uniform; we are united. They are a portrait of privilege; we are a mirror of America.”
He praised many of the party’s best-known players, including the men he’d defeated in winning the nomination.
“When we speak of family, the voice is Mario Cuomo’s. When we speak of change, the words are Gary Hart’s. When we speak of hope, the fire is Jesse Jackson’s. When we speak of caring, the spirit is Ted Kennedy’s. When we speak of patriotism, the strength is John Glenn’s. When we speak of the future, the message is Geraldine Ferraro.”
The cheers grew louder with the mention of each name.
Any mention of Ferraro was sure to bring about huge cheers.
“My vice president will be Geraldine Ferraro,” Mondale said at one point. “Tonight, we open a new door to the future. Mr. Reagan calls it tokenism. We call it America.”
The speech was delivered in Mondale’s best voice — not nasally, but not over-the-top passionate, either. It was a voice suited to the moment — and his personality — and it went over extremely well. It wasn’t until it was over that he realized he was drenched in sweat.
“I bet I lost a couple of pounds,” he said. “Hubert said he lost 16 pounds during the 1948 convention (where he delivered his famous civil rights speeches). I couldn’t do what Hubert could do. In the days before television, the important thing was to be able to give an auditorium speech. Hubert could raise the dead with an auditorium speech, but he was too ‘hot’ for television. I had to be myself when I spoke. I’m a lawyer. Keep it tight. Move. Make sense. I don’t have a voice for shouting.”
The convention and his speech were highlights of his campaign. Mondale came out of the convention with a lead. But Reagan proved unbeatable.
“We knew going in it was going to be very, very difficult,” Mondale said. “The election was over before it started in the minds of most people. We had to use that speech, that convention, to at least make people think again.”
On his office wall, there is a photo taken in the moments following his acceptance speech. The delegates are standing, balloons are falling. Mondale, Joan, Ferraro are mere specks in the photo.”
Somewhere out there on the campaign trail, both McCain and Obama are preparing for the speech that will precede that electric moment. Obama’s problem is that expectations will be so high. McCain’s strengths are that expectations won’t be so high and, said Mondale, he communicates well on television. “He comes across with a sincerity.”
Mondale again pointed to the photo of the most triumphant moments of his remarkable career.
“It doesn’t seem that long ago,” he said.
Smiling, he added this: “My dream when I was a kid was to someday be elected a county commissioner.”
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.