This is the last in a series of excerpts from “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics,” by Walter F. Mondale with David Hage. In the book’s last chapter, Mondale lays out his core values and reflects on transformations in American society that he worked to bring about during his time in public life.
My career has been about opening doors, and I believe we opened doors in the 1984 campaign. Geraldine Ferraro got young women thinking about what they could do in politics. We didn’t win that year, but they saw the possibilities. They saw Ferraro debate George H.W. Bush and beat him. They saw that a glass ceiling had been shattered and that women could start thinking about higher possibilities. As I write these words, someone right down the hall might be thinking about running for president. It’s been a tonic for America, and it’s not going to go back.
As for race, the change has been profound. When I started in the Senate, it was an open question whether black Americans would ever fully participate in our political system. Colleagues told me, You are playing with fire, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Some would pull out their Bibles and tell me that the races are not supposed to live and work together. The year that we first tried to establish the Martin Luther King Day holiday, a senator came up to me and asked, What in your background gives you standing to talk about civil rights? Why don’t you stick to your own business? He was a prominent and powerful senator at the time. It was tough stuff, it was career-threatening.
Our country took more than two hundred years to confront this legacy, and when we finally did, with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, it was a remarkable lesson in the use of the law. The Voting Rights Act represented an incredible exercise of federal power and encroachment on local government. We sent federal registrars right down to the precinct level. We had federal officers in Southern states to ensure that black citizens could register and that the voting was peaceful. We used force, with the support of the U.S. Supreme Court, to guarantee the one-man-one-vote principle, and suddenly the right to vote became a reality.
That was the compulsion side of the law. But good law must also be a teacher. It can set an example and change minds. I believe that was the broader accomplishment of the civil rights movement and the civil rights laws: We saw a transformation of people’s minds and hearts, a profound shift in the way Americans look at race, and it all coalesced under Barack Obama. Americans saw him not as a black man who wanted to be president, but as a hugely gifted person who should be president — who also happened to be black.
As recently as twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that possible. We have opened doors for millions of Americans to participate in our democracy and our economy and, in so doing, have finally, after 250 years, redeemed our promise as a nation of justice and liberty.
Unlike the New Deal, this wasn’t merely about spending money or expanding government. This was about dispersing power, about recognizing that the disadvantaged were not supplicants asking for a place in society but citizens who had the right to take their place. We didn’t merely open doors, we gave all Americans the tools they would need to keep the doors open.
In the fall of 2006, not long after Keith Ellison was elected from Minnesota as the first Muslim member of Congress, I attended a meeting of Twin Cities religious leaders. An imam came up to me, thanked me for endorsing Keith, and said it made him hopeful about this country. He told me he had talked about the endorsement and the election with his son, and his son had said, I like America. Things happen here.
The point I want to underscore is that these movements didn’t merely improve life for disadvantaged Americans, they made the rest of America stronger.
When I went to Washington, I could see the wreckage that segregation was causing in our country. We could never tap the talents of all our people. We sapped our emotional strength with divisive feuds. We had millions of citizens who were alienated from their own country, who could not support our system of government because they saw it was unfair. These were terrible burdens to carry as a nation, and they were self-imposed. When I was a young senator, the segregationists told me that racial integration would weaken the nation. No one believes that anymore. History has vindicated the effort to outlaw discrimination and expand opportunity.
By redeeming our national promise at home, we have increased our ability to carry hope and set an example abroad. Nothing is more toxic than relationships based on hate. It’s the story of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia. It’s why hopeful people around the world look to us for an example. I think America’s greatness can be found in its struggle to open doors. We can carry more weight today because we leveled the load across all of us. It’s redemptive.
From THE GOOD FIGHT by Walter Mondale with Dave Hage. Copyright © 2010 by Walter Mondale. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.