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Walter Mondale on life and loss — and finding ways to matter

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Walter Mondale celebrating his 87th birthday at Rainbow Chinese in Minneapolis on Friday.

On Friday night, Walter Mondale — the former senator, vice president and ambassador to Japan — celebrated birthday No. 87, which, he says with a gentle laugh, “puts me on the edge of maturity and senility.’’

The Mondale clan celebrated the event at its usual spot: Rainbow Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis.

The Mondale circle has been broken in significant ways in recent years. Last February, Joan, the matriarch of the family and Walter’s wife of 58 years, died. Two years earlier, the couple’s daughter, Eleanor, also died, following a long battle with brain cancer. “But you know,’’ Mondale said, “the circle is much bigger than it ever was,” with children and spouses and grandchildren.

That seems to be Mondale’s way of looking at life. There is loss, sometimes huge loss. But you press on, finding ways to laugh — and to matter.

There is loneliness too, though, especially at night, when he goes home to his apartment and Joan is not there. He’ll have a glass of wine, and there will be a meal prepared for him by a woman who’s worked for the family for years, and there will be books to read (though never novels; “novels aren’t truthful,’’ he explains).

So he reads serious books about serious issues and sometimes the reading gets him fretting. When that happens, he knows it’s time to put down the book and search for old movies on his television. “You get down there on those channels in the 300s and the 400s and you can find old movies that I can remember,’’ he said. “Maybe something with John Wayne.’’ 

Still, those things only make the evening pass. They don’t fill the hole in his life. “Suddenly, you’re without the person you have loved and lived with and shared everything with for 58 years. You’re without your loved one. Everyone you talk to says it takes a lot of time to get over that — and most of us don’t really want to.’’

‘She had the class’

Joan Adams and Walter met on a blind date in 1955. Fifty days later, they were married.  She was the woman from an international background and a love of the arts. He was the young man from a small town who already had political dreams. “She had the class in the family,’’ he said, laughing. “She married an old cowboy from Elmore.’’

How’d that happen? “I think it was her missionary spirit,’’ he laughs. “I ended up going to a lot of art galleries that I don’t remember.’’ 

Yet life remains interesting to the senator, the vice president, the one-time presidential candidate, the ambassador to Japan, the elder statesman. Even the aging process.

“It’s sort of a funny thing,’’ he said. “You have all these pills to take and your to-do list is filled with visits to doctors, who are checking you out and then they say, ‘You’re really in good shape.’ ’’

Even the weather is interesting to him. Or maybe it’s just his reaction to the weather. “I’m the ultimate Minnesotan,’’ Mondale said. “All my life, I never got cold. But last winter did me in. So this winter I’ll go down to Florida for six weeks and see how that works. Joan and I used to go down there. We’d plan to go for a week but then we’d come back early. We thought we might be missing something.’

‘I don’t have many regrets’

He does have concerns about the state of the country and the world. “I do a lot of work on campaigns,’’ Mondale said. “But the money part of it drives me crazy. I think our democracy is close to being bought and that’s very troubling. I worry about what’s happening with radical Islam. I think we have done a good job [in Minnesota] of integrating all beliefs. But you hope we don’t get directly touched by the awfulness because that could change how things are working here. And I worry about why we have these terrible, deep divisions in politics that prevent us from doing things that need to be done. I know there’s blame on both sides, but — this won’t surprise you — I think it’s mostly because of what the Republicans have become.’’

He pauses for a moment to find something he has recently read about the Republican Party. He finds the paragraph from a political scientist who writes that Republicans have become “insurgent outliers.”

Rather than mope and grumble, Mondale still keeps toiling at things he can do “that matter.’’

Walter Mondale
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Mondale: “Suddenly, you’re without the person you have loved and lived with and shared everything with for 58 years.”

Dorsey & Whitney, the law firm where he continues to work on a regular basis, is holding an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. The event will involve such locally prominent people as Josie Johnson.

Mondale’s both curious — and concerned — about the movie “Selma.” His concern is over what he’s read about how President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the march and voting rights is portrayed. The movie, he fears, portrays Johnson as an obstacle, which doesn’t square with the facts as he knew them as a young senator in Washington or his own readings about Johnson, who, at huge political risk, was a force for the passage of voting rights legislation.

“I’m sure it’s a wonderful movie,’’ Mondale said. “But to say that Johnson didn’t want the voting rights act simply is not true. Why do that? Whatever you do, you should start with the truth.’’ 

Looking ahead, Mondale plans to work this summer with scholars at the Humphrey Institute and the Brookings Institution on a major project involving his times in public life. So many of the issues of his time remain today, and he hopes the project will lead to a accurate portrayal of the history of years as a senator (1964-1976) and as vice president (1977-1981).

This project, he said, offers a chance for him to give something he never had before. “I’ve got time,’’ he said. “I can make big choices on how I spend that time and what I want to do is strengthen the historical record — which will include spending time with old friends.’’

At this point in his life, there is time also for reflections, some of which can be vivid. Recently, he entered the U.S. Senate chambers again, for the swearing-in of Sen. Al Franken. It brought back sweet memories of the first time he stepped into the chamber as the newly elected senator from Minnesota.

Such recollections can be bittersweet.

“It stuns me how fast everything goes,’’ he said. “But I don’t have many regrets. Joan and I got to do more than we ever could have dreamed of doing.’’

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Larry Piumbroeck on 01/12/2015 - 11:33 am.

    Great Human Being and Class Act

    This man makes me proud to be a Minnesotan. Where are the leaders like Mondale now? He is right about the Republicans. Sadly they have turned into outliers.

  2. Submitted by John Edwards on 01/12/2015 - 01:57 pm.

    The real problem

    I certainly have respect for Walter Mondale’s admirable career and sympathy for his familial losses. I do think he is wrong, however, in blaming solely Republicans for the current divisiveness he complains about.

    What has happened is that thanks to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet—specifically Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Matt Drudge—the nation now has a dialogue on issues, which to Mondale appears as discord.

    In Mondale’s day, liberals had a lock on all communications. Republican viewpoints were relegated to a half hour on PBS-TV for William Buckley’s Firing Line. All major newspapers and news magazines were solidly liberal as were the only three national networks with news department. For example, Walter Cronkite, the dominate news source at the time, even admitted his liberal bias in respected historian Douglas Brinkley’s biography “Cronkite” in which it was also stunningly revealed Cronkite secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 GOP convention. There are still gullible Minnesotans from the 1970s who don’t realize the famous State That Works cover with Wendell Anderson was simply Time editor and Brainerd native Hedley Donovan’s Herculean effort to get his fellow Minnesotan elected president. Donovan finally made it to the White House where he was comfortable being an advisor to Jimmy Carter. The Washington Post spent all of its resources to go after Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. But a decade earlier, editor Ben Bradlee and his colleagues never printed a word about John Kennedy living a life that would make Bill Clinton looked chaste. The Post and other media allowed Kennedy to portray himself as a perfect family man while he cavorted with prostitutes in the White House and connived with mobsters to steal elections (the primary in West Virginia and the general in Illinois) while also using drugs that affected his behavior. We never heard a word then. CBS insider Bernard Goldberg removed all doubt with his 1993 blockbuster “Bias” that blew the whistle on liberal bias in the nation’s newsrooms.

    In today’s world, what was avoided in the 1960s and 1970s is now reported. It is much easier now for Republicans to speak out. Liberals no longer have total control of who is heard. We are moving toward journalistic equality. For example, in the 1990s people knew contemporaneously about Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky that Newsweek (a Post company) spiked and Drudge reported. Goldberg’s book became a best seller. If Powerline had been operating in the 1970s, it would surely have spilled the beans about the Time cover, something the Star-Tribune never did.

    When Democrats like Mondale talk about the loss of political civility what they are really bemoaning is their lack of media monopoly.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/12/2015 - 05:51 pm.

      He didn’t say “solely”

      Read more carefully. Here is what the article said on that point:

      “I know there’s blame on both sides, but — this won’t surprise you — I think it’s mostly because of what the Republicans have become.’’

      Mostly. Not “solely”.

      Close, but no cigar.

    • Submitted by John Clark on 01/13/2015 - 12:37 pm.

      Liberals had “total control” of media? Let’s look at that closer

      Has the media in the past had a “liberal bias”, as Mr. Goldberg and many other hard line conservatives maintain? And were the “liberals”, before the 90s, in “total control” of the media, as you insist, John? I think one’s take on this is, to a large extent, in the eye of the beholder. If there was a media bias during the 60s and 70s, it certainly wasn’t large scale as some would claim, and it wasn’t very consistent.

      I would have to agree, John, that more news information (especially opinion), whether it’s accurate or not, does get disseminated today to the public than it did back then. Our sources of information, especially electronic, of course, have changed considerably. But in 60-70’s era, the ownership of the media was not nearly as concentrated in the hands of a few key players as it is today (and BTW, these corporate players today, are probably not hard line liberals, as some conservatives still contend).

      So the media, especially the print media, a major source of the news back then, was owned by a broad assortment of smaller publications, whose take on important social issues of the time varied considerably. Did the majority of these publications, that were often distributed on the local level, support the withdrawal of our troops from the quagmire we got into in S.E. Asia? Or did they support women’s rights issues, that were also emerging at the time? Probably not. Or in the South for example, did the majority of these smaller publications support integration? Again, probably not. Walter Cronkite may have had a “liberal bias”, (and the term liberal/conservative is all relative), but he was only one voice, from one media source at the time. And yes, Kennedy ’s indiscretions were not sensationalized like they would be today. But Dwight Eisenhower’s affair with his driver was under reported too. Fortunately, or unfortunately, overlooking these types of issues was more the standard then. And, the list could go on.

      So to make the statement that there is, or ever has been a “total control” of the media in the United States by one group, is just plain hard to understand, John.

      And as Minnesotans, we should also all be proud of Mr. Mondale’s record of championing progressive issues over the years.

  3. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/12/2015 - 03:41 pm.

    When I stopped reading this comment:

    “What has happened is that thanks to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet—specifically Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Matt Drudge—the nation now has a dialogue on issues, which to Mondale appears as discord.”

    • Submitted by jason myron on 01/13/2015 - 07:11 am.

      But the comment illustrates

      what an extraordinary disconnect that people like this have to reality. They simply want to believe something that fits their political bent… whether it’s factual or not, is inconsequential.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 01/12/2015 - 03:44 pm.

    I’ve seen my future

    And it involves reading a lot of non-fiction and catching old movies on obscure TV channels. If it’s good enough for Fritz, it’s good enough for me!

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/12/2015 - 04:35 pm.

      Oh boy

      This appears to be my present- and I’m not even half Fritz’s age. I’m the only 30-something I know who’s top 5 movies list ranges between 1959 and 1985. Maybe in my distant future I’ll start enjoying early 2000s cinema.

  5. Submitted by Lydia Lucas on 01/12/2015 - 06:11 pm.

    The real problem

    is that what we’re witnessing these days is not what most people would define as “dialogue.” It’s more like mutual bashing. There’s a difference.

  6. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 01/13/2015 - 09:58 pm.

    Thanks for much for this profile, Doug

    Walter Mondale—like Jimmy Carter—started out as a class act and just keeps getting classier and better with age. He is such a real, thoughtful, accomplished, humble and no bullshit guy. Minnesota is so lucky to have had Fritz with us for this long.

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