Last month, the Democratic establishment gathered in Washington to honor former Vice President Walter Mondale. On hand were former President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Joe Biden, our own Minnesota senators and a host of dignitaries. While it is entirely fitting that the former vice president be honored, the event should have involved all those who admire and respect Mondale, including Republicans and independents. After all, his career and rise to power is a powerful example of the American dream, and it warrants acknowledgment from all.
According to news reports, the tribute focused on Mondale’s redefining the role of vice president. It is certainly true that Mondale expanded the powers and responsibilities of the office more than any vice president in history, just as FDR did with the presidency.
However, as important as these contributions are to history, they fail to reveal the underlying zeal that Mondale had for reform. It is this quality that can be most encouraging for young people aspiring to public life, particularly in today’s acidic and polarized environment.
Certainly, much of any successful individual’s accomplishment is rooted in childhood experiences, where character is formed. In this regard, Mondale was heavily influenced by the philosophies and commitment to service of his father, a rural Minnesota minister, and his mother, who taught music. Their lives delivered a message: You can find personal happiness in serving others. How simple. How true.
The unassuming modesty that we associate with Walter Mondale is all too absent amid today’s braggadocio and chest-pounding political environment where modesty is viewed as weakness.
Of all Mondale’s accomplishments, as Minnesota’s attorney general, as senator, as vice president and as U.S. ambassador, I would advance one episode that defined Walter Mondale.
Early in 1962 after being appointed Minnesota’s attorney general, Mondale wrote and submitted a most compelling legal brief in a federal case involving Clarence Earl Giddeon, a drifter who was picked up, arrested, convicted of burglary and sentenced to five years in a Florida prison. The catch, however, was that he could not afford an attorney, and the state of Florida cited past U.S. Supreme Court precedent that states were not compelled to supply legal counsel except in capital cases. Hence, Giddeon did not have any legal representation.
Fortunately, a progressive and talented professor of law at the University of Minnesota, Yale Kamisar, brought this injustice to Mondale’s attention and requested that he submit a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This touched Mondale’s fundamental sense of justice; he rounded up support from other state attorneys general (22 in total) while Prof. Kamiser worked on the brief.
The brief helped lead to a Supreme Court decision that established the constitutional right to counsel in felony cases. Money would no longer determine justice.
The reason I cite this case is twofold. The first is based on my own experience growing up in the Bronx in New York City. The second is that newly initiated public officials are invariably advised to settle in and get used to incumbency and to not rock the boat.
As a matter of fact, that is precisely what could have happened here. It was Kamisar’s phone call to Mondale that started the process of involvement. Fortunately, Mondale responded to his sense of justice rather than to polls and political advisers. He knew as attorney general that he had a most fundamental responsibility to go beyond his belief system and translate it into action, which is to do what is right regardless of political consequences.
I would submit that this involvement and subsequent victory helped Mondale understand and appreciate a new reality — that he could play with the adults and have an impact. This would be true as long as he was driven by his commitment to enhance the American dream and was anchored in hard work and disciplined reasoning.
Critics have always argued that Walter Mondale was blessed with incredible luck, having been appointed attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president and ambassador. This is true, but it does not deal with why he was appointed. I would contend that it was based on competence and integrity. After all, good appointments suggest good judgment by those who make the appointment.
Not even Mondale’s harshest critics would challenge his abilities or basic sense of decency. The reality is that he performed exceptionally well in all his public endeavors.
Mondale was never a highly successful retail politician like Hubert Humphrey. No one was faster or better with the political six-gun or more able to fire up a crowd than the old master. However, Mondale tends to underestimate his supremacy in the formation and shaping of public policy. He was a true master at bringing together divergent views and working toward a common goal.
His was not a style of quick judgment. Rather, he tended to approach public problems much as a seasoned lawyer, weighing all the options and carefully examining all possible downsides. He may have been courageous in selecting issues, but he was precise and careful in the shaping of policy.
Legislative bodies have an assignment of judgment relative to individual performance: show horses and workhorses. Clearly, Mondale was in the latter group.
History will always speculate on whether he would have made a good president. I cannot dispute that Ronald Reagan fit the times with his optimism, radiating confidence in the face of challenge much like Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
However, this does not diminish Mondale’s likelihood of success as president. His competence and the decency of his philosophy likely would have steadily appealed to the American people. He may not have been a sensational first date, but he wears well, and over time one appreciates his enormous talent and high ethics. Yes, I think he would have been an outstanding president.
While it is most appropriate for Washington to honor Walter Mondale, it shall be understood that statesmen are all too rare and they warrant universal respect that goes well beyond any political label. Mondale will always be Minnesota’s special son as well as a truly great American leader.
Arne Carlson was governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999.