In the 31 years since Walter Mondale was the Democratic nominee for president, there have been seismic shifts in the media landscape. But it’s enduring concerns like money in politics and the role of a vigorous press that matter most, the former vice president said in an interview.
“If you have a lot of money, you have access to the public. But the public does not have access to you,” Mondale said a week before a series of Humphrey School of Public Affairs events honoring him, starting with a Public Leadership Awards dinner Tuesday.
Mondale described today’s Citizens United campaign-finance era as “awful,” and added, “Lincoln famously said ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That’s the basis of democracy — that it belongs to the public. It’s not for sale. It’s not deniable.”
Mondale believes an antidote is a fair but aggressive press. “Even when you are in government — [President] Carter and I used to talk about this — how does a president know what’s going on? Do you think they call and say, ‘It was a bad day at the Ag Department?’ No. Some reporter gets a whiff of it and writes it. And one of the best instruments of presidential management is the daily newspaper and what the cat drags in overnight.”
Now, however, overnight is 24/7.
“This is a good-old-days argument, but we used to have what was called a news cycle, and so you’d have a few hours to think about it, a few hours to prepare your charge, and the press would have a few hours to write their story. Now, there is no news cycle. News is instantaneous. … I think there was more enforced thoughtfulness in the old system.”
Of course, a key reason for instantaneous news is the Internet. “For people who try, it’s probably easier to get information now because the Internet opens up a lot of material in a hurry that wasn’t around when we were running, so I think that’s good. But it still leaves me cold, because I don’t think the final product allows the press to drill into candidates and the big issues. That’s the test, so the positive parts of modern information availability tend to get dissipated as a result.”
Debates, however, can still deliver important information, Mondale said. “I’ve always been a big supporter of debates, because although there is a lot of claptrap to them and the candidates are trying to do their best, as they should, there has always been a way that the truth sneaks out, some unprotected comment.” Although that may be less possible in the upcoming 10-candidate GOP debates. “Is it just going to be a befuddling blur of people up there?” Mondale wondered.
He also had advice regarding reporters. “Instead of being punching bags, they should be encouraged to go about their work and help us become educated citizens. … I’m worried that this is slipping by those who demonize the press.”
Media demonization can be frequently heard on the airwaves, which shifted significantly in 1987 when the FCC phased out the Fairness Doctrine.
“It’s a sad thing, in my opinion, because you would have some responsibility for fairness, some responsibility for hearing all sides of the story. I think a lot of this harsh — mostly right-wing but not entirely — attack journalism is a result of getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine.”
Like now, campaign ads had significant impact in 1984. President Reagan’s “Tuesday Team” crafted “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (“It’s morning again in America”), which is still considered a standard today. Reagan “was very good, and he got a lot of gifted support,” Mondale said.
Paying for today’s ubiquitous political ads and other campaign activities is Mondale’s biggest concern. “The one that worries me most is money. Because it can, and I believe in some ways is, corrupting the system. It can be used to ensure a candidate’s non-accountability. It paralyzes the process by which citizens used to be able to learn what was going on. And I think it’s a huge attack on public trust. How do you trust the system? A lot of the success of America has been, despite all the noise and clatter, people basically trusted democracy to work.
“What do you say about it now?”
Mondale, 87, may be asked to answer, and pose, more rhetorical questions during the Humphrey School events. Although he’s firmly established as an international figure, Mondale is Minnesotan to the core, and thus wanted his presence to be less about him and more about supporting scholarships.
He also wants “a focus on those individuals and institutions that are working to achieve progress on issues like access to justice, civil and human rights, transparency in government, and other issues that animated his political career,” said Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School.
Invoking the school’s namesake, Mondale said: “He wanted a living institution. … He’s been gone a long time, but I think he’d really like what this Humphrey School has become.
“It’s a wonderful story, and a wonderful asset for the state of Minnesota.”
Just like Walter Mondale himself.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.