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Walter Mondale: a political giant who didn’t need the trappings of power

Unlike so many in political life, he accepted his humanity and fallibility. He seemed to require no special treatment. He even could laugh at himself — and often did.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale speaking during his U.S. Senate debate with Republican candidate Norm Coleman at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, on November 4, 2002.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

If you were to have met Walter Mondale just walking down the street, there are a number of things you would not have known.

You wouldn’t have known he’d been the vice president of the United States. You wouldn’t have known that he’d been the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. You wouldn’t have known he’d been a U.S. senator. That he’d served as the attorney general of Minnesota. As an ambassador. That for decades he was a crucial player in monumental events ranging from civil rights to voting rights to women’s rights and on and on. 

He wore none of this on his sleeve. Unlike so many in political life, he accepted his humanity and fallibility. He seemed to require no special treatment. He even could laugh at himself — and often did.

As an old newspaper person and later a MinnPost reporter, I had the chance of often being around Mondale. What struck me is that it always was a comfortable experience, a feeling clearly shared by others.

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Always, there would be laughter

At the 2008 Democratic Party’s National Convention in Denver, Mondale, a superdelegate, was staying at the same suburban hotel as the rest of the Minnesota delegation. He frequently could be found in the hotel’s lobby, talking with, not talking to, other members of the delegation. And always in those conversations, there would be laughter.

There was no telling where a person might run into Mondale at that hotel. There was, for example, the experience of an alternate Minnesota delegate, Marcia Betker. On the evening before the convention kicked off, Betker and her husband returned to the hotel from a gala at the Democratic Party’s headquarters hotel in downtown Denver. After getting into her pajamas, Betker decided she needed a late-night snack. She said she’d peeked out her door, saw that with the exception of a solitary figure, the coast was clear. She made a break for  the snack machine. But the solitary figure she’d noticed?

“Here I am, no makeup, my pajamas and the one person I come across in the hallway is the former vice president,’’ she said at the time.

“How you doing?’’ he asked Betker.

“Fine,’’ she said and rushed off.

She made her purchase, started rushing back to her room and again saw only one person in the hallway.

“Hello again,’’ Mondale said to her.

“Hello,’’ she said, convinced that Mondale must have thought of her as “a crazy woman who runs around like that.’’

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Two days later, she recalled, she had her picture taken with Mondale. She was more formally dressed and made up. “I was hoping he didn’t recognize me,’’ she said. “If he did, he was polite enough not to say anything.’’

He didn’t need an entourage

Mondale was a giant of our times but, unlike so many of our would-be political giants, he didn’t need a suite of rooms, he didn’t need an entourage. He understood he was just a guy, who had gone a little farther than he’d dreamed.

“My dream when I was a kid,’’ he once said, “is that I someday would be elected a county commissioner.’’

In his modest office at the Dorsey Whitney law firm, there was a remarkable photo of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, are pictured from behind looking over the celebratory chaos of falling balloons and banner-waving delegates at the windup of the convention. Mondale and Ferraro would step from this moment into a presidential campaign that would end in a lopsided loss to Ronald Reagan.

President Ronald Reagan, right, and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale are pictured during the first 1984 U.S. presidential election debate in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 7, 1984.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS
President Ronald Reagan, right, and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale are pictured during the first 1984 U.S. presidential election debate in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 7, 1984.

We talked about that moment when the candidate steps before the huge, hopeful convention crowd.

“Isn’t that moment terrifying?” I asked Mondale. He admitted he was soaking wet when he concluded his speech. He admitted there had been some anxiety before the speech because he understood the importance of it. But it wasn’t terrifying.

Terrifying, he explained, was being a kid in rural Minnesota, playing a cello recital. “I had reason to be terrified. I was no good at cello.’’

A delight in telling stories

He loved laughing. He would laugh as he talked of the negative side effects of the traditional DFL fundraisers, the bean feeds. He loved telling stories of old colleagues and friends. And he also delighted in telling stories of his 59-year marriage to Joan. She was refined, he’d say; he was country. Refining him, he’d say, was her “missionary calling. I ended up going to a lot of art galleries that I don’t remember.’’

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When she died in 2014, there was the late-night loneliness that so many can understand. Mondale would talk of life in his apartment after her passing. There’d be a glass of wine with dinner. There’d be some serious reading. But often there would be deep concerns about the political tones in the country. He’d fret about how the country seemed to be turning against itself. At those moments, Mondale once said, he’d often have to set down the serious book, turn on the television and seek an old, familiar movie, perhaps something starring John Wayne, and let his mind drift.

Even at times of sadness or concerns or disgust, there was a gratefulness. He had family and grandkids and fishing trips. There were so many sweet memories.

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