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.’’
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.’’