Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The lessons, and mystery, of Wendell Anderson’s political career

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a close friend of Anderson’s, put it this way: “His career comes under the heading, ‘Watch out!’”

Former Gov. Wendell Anderson, left, greeting Pioneer Press political correspondent Bill Salisbury outside the House Chamber after attending Gov. Mark Dayton's State of the State address on Feb. 15, 2012.

The life and times of the late Wendell Anderson is testimony to the fact that even giant politicians often stride on thin ice.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a close friend of Anderson’s, put it this way: “His career comes under the heading, ‘Watch out!’”

Anderson, who died last Sunday, July 17, at the age of 83, had his “watch out!” moment in 1976, when he arranged to be appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the opening created when Mondale was elected to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s vice president. 

Article continues after advertisement

The sleight of hand deal worked like this: Anderson halfway through his second term as the state’s highly popular governor, resigned as governor with the understanding that his lieutenant governor, Rudy Perpich, would become governor and appoint Anderson to fill the last two years of Mondale’s Senate term. 

What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, Anderson was warned by a number of political insiders that the move was fraught with political peril, old friends say. It was pointed out to Anderson that something similar had been done six times previously — and in each of those cases the appointee was defeated when that had to go before the voters. 

But Anderson didn’t listen.

“We all make mistakes,” said former state attorney general Warren Spannaus. “You have to remember, he was in his second term. He was thinking, ‘I’ve done all I can do.’ We all like to move up, and he considered the Senate a step up.”

A 1970 campaign poster.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A 1970 campaign poster.

And one other thing that likely led to Anderson’s reckless decision: He was a golden boy. An Olympian on a U.S. hockey team that won a silver medal, an undefeated politician who had won every county when he ran for his second term as governor.  

Surely, he must have thought, Minnesotans never would reject him.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Rudy Boschwitz pummeled Anderson in the 1978 Senate race, winning 56 percent of the vote to Anderson’s 40 percent. In that same election cycle, Republican David Durenberger crushed Robert Short, who himself had upset the DFL’s endorsed Senate candidate, Don Fraser, in the primary. (Durenberger won the seat that had been occupied by Hubert Humphrey, who had died the previous January. Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, had been appointed to fill the last 10 months of her husband’s term.) In the governor’s race, Al Quie beat Perpich by seven points. It all added up to the Minnesota Massacre.

Roger Moe, a young state senator when Anderson was the state’s high-flying governor, believes there are reasons beyond Anderson’s self-appointment that led to the stunning end of Anderson’s political career. “I recall this was a time of very high interest rates and high inflation,” said Moe. “I think there was a general attitude starting to build in the country that something had to change. There was a general frustration. That sort of uneasiness is hard to put your finger on, but you can put your finger on this one thing.”

Surely Moe is right. Despite the fact that we in the media often look for simple explanations, there usually complex answers for political outcomes.

Gov. Wendell Anderson 1973 Time cover
Gov. Wendell Anderson 1973 Time cover

And there are also the sensitivities of voters. A few years ago, in a Minnesota Public Radio interview, Boschwitz, the businessman who defeated Anderson, recalled: “When you’re in office a long time, you tend to lose touch with the people.”

Boschwitz said that there is an arrogance that comes over time with being in office, and a lot of people perceived Anderson’s self-appointment as arrogant. Boschwitz himself got caught up in the same sort of web in 1990, when he was defeated by a little-known college professor, Paul Wellstone. 

But if we voters are sensitive to arrogance, we also tend to be forgiving, willing to give pols second chances. Indeed, Perpich recovered from his loss to Quie and went on to serve two terms as governor. Fraser, who had lost the primary race to Short, came back as the longtime mayor of Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Massacre seemed to do lasting damage only to Anderson. And the fact that he never found a way back onto the ballot in Minnesota remains perplexing to old friends like Mondale, Spannaus and Moe. Anderson had the whole political package: Upbeat (he was Minnesota’s greatest cheerleader); an environmentalist just as that issue was becoming mainstream; a decent speaker; and — for all but one election — a winner. 

“Wendy had a long string of wins,” said Mondale. “Everything had always been magical for him. I think he always was looking around for a way to run for the Senate.”

His hardest search came in 1984, but the times had begun to change. Joan Growe won the DFL endorsement over Anderson, among others. Anderson considered mounting a primary challenge, but those thoughts seemed to end when old DFL allies, such as Mondale, said they would support Growe, who went on to be defeated by Boschwitz by 17 points.

Soon Anderson became the political figure from the past. He’d show up at DFL events, wave, smile and be remembered for the Time magazine cover, for the miracle and the massacre. And, fair or not, he’ll go down in state history as the governor who destroyed his own fast-rising career by appointing himself to the Senate.

Wendell Anderson, Lyndon Carlson Sr. and Walter Mondale
Courtesy of Sam Stern
Former Gov. Wendell Anderson, state Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr. and former Vice President Walter Mondale chatting during Anderson’s 80th birthday celebration at the Wayzata Country Club.

In a Minnesota Public Radio interview eight years ago, he said: “I played my political hand poorly… I think that was a big mistake and I think taking a knife and cutting both my legs off would be a big mistake also.” 

But the “watch out!” decision was one he didn’t talk about much, even with his friends.

“We all make mistakes,” said Spannaus, “but he didn’t recover from this one. We didn’t talk about the decision much. We all knew it was painful to him so it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d bring up. We all understood that it changed his life and there was nothing he could do about it. That happens in politics.”