Walter Mondale, Ex-Vice President Routed by Reagan, Dies at 93

Walter Mondale, who asserted himself as an activist vice president under Jimmy Carter before losing a bid for the presidency in one of the worst routs in U.S. political history, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide, has died. He was 93.

He died on Monday at his home in Minneapolis, according to the New York Times, citing Kathy Tunheim, a spokeswoman for the family. No cause was given.

Even after naming Geraldine Ferraro as his Democratic running mate -- making her the first woman on a major U.S. party’s presidential ticket -- Mondale managed to win only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia in the 1984 election, as Reagan cruised to a second term with almost 59% of the popular vote and 98% of the Electoral College vote.

Walter Mondale, Ex-Vice President Routed by Reagan, Dies at 93

Mondale himself marveled at how downbeat his campaign had been compared with Reagan’s. “Reagan was promising them ‘Morning in America,’ and I was promising a root canal,” he was reported to have told friends.

But on Monday night, President Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats remarked on Mondale’s contributions to the nation’s second-highest office, saying that he left it stronger and more vital. “When President Obama asked me to consider being his vice president, Fritz was my first call and trusted guide,” Biden said in a statement, using Mondale’s nickname. “He not only took my call, he wrote me a memo. It was Walter Mondale who defined the vice presidency as a full partnership, and helped provide a model for my service. “

And Vice President Kamala Harris, who last November became the first woman elected to that office, said in a statement that his selection of Farraro was a “a bold and historic choice.” Both Harris and Biden said they had spoken to Mondale in the last few days.

Of his decades in public service, Mondale spoke most glowingly of the two terms he spent representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, supporting civil-rights measures, consumer-protection laws and better services for children and the poor.

As Carter’s vice president from 1977 to 1981, Mondale took part in most important meetings and had weekly private lunches with the president. “We agreed that he would truly be second in command, involved in every aspect of governing,” Carter later said.

Establishment Democrat

Among traditional Democratic constituencies, Mondale was better known and trusted than Carter, who had served as Georgia’s governor before winning the White House. Mondale steered negotiations in 1979 that produced a $1.5 billion loan guarantee for Chrysler Corp. that the United Auto Workers, among others, had been seeking.

To James Thurber, a political science professor at American University in Washington, Mondale was “one of the first vice presidents in modern times who was given substantive work and was taken seriously by the president.”

Mondale served as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s first term, before returning to Minneapolis to practice law.

In 2002, Mondale agreed to run once more for Congress when Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, a Democrat seeking another term, was killed in a plane crash 11 days before the election. Mondale lost to Republican Norm Coleman by less than 50,000 votes out of almost 2.3 million that were cast. He called it his last political campaign, and it was.

Walter Frederick Mondale was born Jan. 5, 1928, in Ceylon, Minnesota, the son of a Methodist minister who put deeds before piety.

Government’s Duty

As a young man, he “became committed to the notion that government had a duty to act as an equalizer in an uneven battle between working folk and the captains of capitalism,” wrote his biographer Finlay Lewis.

Mondale dropped out of Macalester College in St. Paul after his political mentor, Hubert Humphrey, won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948. Following Humphrey to Washington, Mondale became national secretary of the Students for Democratic Action.

He returned to college in 1950 at the University of Minnesota, graduating a year later. Following two years in the U.S. Army, he returned to the university to earn his law degree on the G.I. Bill.

In 1955 he married the former Joan Adams. They would have three children, Theodore, Eleanor and Walter. Joan Mondale died in 2014. Eleanor Mondale Poling died in 2011.

Civil Rights

At 32, Mondale became the nation’s youngest state attorney general when he was appointed to the post by Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, whose campaign he had managed. He promoted consumer safeguards and civil rights and helped persuade several state attorneys general to support the legal appeal of an impoverished Florida convict, Clarence Earl Gideon. That case resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that indigent defendants charged with major crimes have the right to counsel whether or not they can afford it.

When Humphrey was elected on President Lyndon Johnson’s ticket as vice president in 1964, Mondale was appointed to replace him in the Senate. In 1966, he won the seat on his own, and he was re-elected six years later.

“My Senate years were the happiest of my public career,” Mondale said in a 2002 address at the Capitol. “I found my sweet spot here.”

In the Senate, he backed more rights for migrant laborers and better child health care and nutrition, among other causes. “He cared passionately about civil rights, human rights, social justice,” Richard Moe, who worked for Mondale in the Senate and as the vice president’s chief of staff, said in a 2006 interview.

Running Mate

Mondale seriously weighed running in the 1976 presidential election before opting out, explaining that he lacked “the overwhelming desire to be president” and dreaded another year “sleeping in Holiday Inns.”

Carter, upon sealing the Democratic nomination, narrowed his possible running mates to two senators, Mondale and Edmund Muskie of Maine, who had been the running mate of Humphrey in 1968. Carter said he chose Mondale because “he had excellent ideas about how to make the vice presidency a full-time and productive job.”

Mondale spelled out those ideas in an 11-page memo to Carter a month after the election. He hoped to be “a general adviser” and a source of “impartial advice” with broad access and specific assignments, he wrote. Mondale said this would be in contrast to traditional views of the vice presidency as “a role characterized by ambiguity, disappointment and even antagonism.”

Carter later wrote, “During our four and a half years together, I never for a moment had reason to doubt his competence, his loyalty or his friendship. This harmony had not existed between many of my predecessors and their vice presidents.”

In a statement on Monday night, Carter, 96, said he considered Mondale “the best vice president in our country’s history” who “used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before and still exists today.”

In a joint statement, Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Mondale for believing “in the power of government to make a positive difference in people’s lives.” Former President Barack Obama said on Twitter that Mondale “changed the role of VP—so leaders like @JoeBiden could be the last ones in the room when decisions were made.”

Presidential Campaign

After Reagan ousted Carter from the White House in the 1980 election, Mondale wasted little time laying the foundation for a presidential run of his own in 1984. He was seen as the front-runner in a crowded Democratic field after Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy declined to run, and he outlasted the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Senator Gary Hart of Colorado to seize the nomination.

Knowing he faced an uphill fight against Reagan, he turned to Ferraro, a New York congresswoman, to inject an element of history into the race.

“I knew that I could not effectively challenge the enormously popular Mr. Reagan without a bold choice which could change the entire political picture,” he said 20 years later. As it turned out, Ferraro’s murky family finances, not her gender, dominated headlines after she became a candidate.

Ferraro, who died in 2011, acknowledged in a 1988 letter to the New York Times that she was added to the Democratic ticket to draw the votes of women.

“But knowing Fritz as well as I do,” she added, “and looking at his accomplishments as Minnesota’s attorney general and its senator, I can say it was equally important to him to right a wrong: He removed gender as a disqualification for national office.”

Considered Aloof

Mondale was so reserved that some staff members considered him aloof. He drank just enough that he wouldn’t be considered a prude and refused to let himself be photographed with a drink in his hand.

A voracious reader whose favorite pastime was fishing, he was one of the Senate’s poorest members. His net worth in 1975 was about $77,000, according to biographer Lewis.

On occasion, Mondale was criticized for not sticking up for political causes that moved him. He eventually blamed himself for not speaking out against the Vietnam War and Johnson’s handling of it.

“The mistake I made in Vietnam is the one thing in my life that I wish I could redo,” he said in a 2006 radio interview.

Accepting his party’s presidential nomination at the 1984 Democratic convention, Mondale said, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

On that, Mondale stuck to his guns.

“We will not be able to control our budget deficits without raising taxes,” he wrote in a 2011 column for the Washington Post.

Having “told the truth in 1984,” he wrote, “I lost the election, but I won the debate. Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 to mend the budget and tax systems.”

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