The story begins the year before he was even old enough to vote. It was a late July afternoon in 1948, and Fritz Mondale, then all of 20, had been put in charge of the Second Congressional District for Hubert Humphrey's U.S. Senate campaign. No one knew what second prize was. The annual Martin County Farm Bureau Federation picnic at Fox Lake Park needed a speaker, and Mr. Mondale arranged for Humphrey to headline the event.
The political climate was charged and complicated in that American summer. There was anxiety at home, communist aggression abroad, as a Democratic president sought to govern a fractious party and a divided country. As Mark Twain once said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Seen as too liberal by the right and too conservative by the left, Harry Truman would say he didn't give Republicans hell; he just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.
In his own party President Truman faced opposition over his desegregation of the military and his push for civil rights. Only weeks before the Martin County picnic, Mayor Humphrey's civil rights speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia had helped send Dixiecrats, segregationist Dixiecrats, out of the hall and back into the Old Confederacy.
But far from the Olympian drama of Philadelphia, in Martin County, after the 4-H club band had played, Humphrey took the stage. He was passionate and funny. He said, "Kick the rascals out, and vote the new rascals in." Afterward Humphrey thanked his young ally, telling Mr. Mondale: "Your work is needed. We have so much to do."
Mr. Mondale was over the moon. "After that day," he recalled, "I think I never stopped."
"I think I never stopped." And we live in a better, nobler, more perfect Union because Walter Frederick Mondale never stopped.
Now, for the politicians in the room — and there might be one or two of you who snuck through customs — an election result: In 1948, Humphrey carried Mondale's territory, the very Republican Second District, by 8,500 votes. It was Mr. Mondale's first victory, and it was a sweet one, second only perhaps to his seven dates-in-six-months courtship of Joan Adams.
The son of a Methodist minister and farmer, as a child Walter Mondale absorbed a gospel that he never stopped seeking to put into practice: That we are summoned to love our neighbors as ourselves, to lift up the most vulnerable among us — to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to strengthen the weak.
There's nothing more important — nothing more American — than that: To enlist in the perennial battle to make real the founding ideal of this nation, that we are in fact created equal.
Now, we can, and we will, and we do disagree about the means of governance. But at our best, Americans have agreed on the end of our common project: To give everyone, in Lincoln's phrase, "an open field and a fair chance."
Walter Mondale devoted his life to that cause. He never stopped seeking a fuller, freer, fairer America. And his years in the arena are testament to a truth of human experience: That the polls and the passions of the moment are just that — of the moment. Headlines come and go; history endures. The tumult of politics rage; true service stands long after the furies of the moment have passed.
Walter Mondale understood something fundamental: That we are at our best not when we build walls, but when we build bridges; not when we point fingers, but when we lend a hand; not when we fear, but when we hope. And from age to age, history honors those who put "We the People" above the will to power; the rule of law above the reign of party; and difficult truths above self-serving fictions.
Now, the Mondales were a stoic people. His father, Theodore, fought a stutter, struggled to farm, went to seminary, and raised a son, Fritz, who knew hardship but lived in hope.
It was a hope that drove him all his life. He was born a year before the stock market crash. His childhood was shaped by the Great Depression. He believed in hard work — he liked to say that he was the only pea-lice inspector to ever become Vice President of the United States. I didn't check it, but I think he's on safe ground. Some might have preferred it. He served in the U.S. Army, went to law school on the GI Bill, and always gave back to the country that had made his life possible.
Now, he was often caricatured, as you all know, as a big-government liberal. But he's better understood as a Cold War liberal — a man devoted, at home and abroad, to freedom and to fairness.
Freedom and fairness: Bear those words in mind. For they are the words that shaped Walter Mondale's consequential life — and Lord knows they are the words that must guide us still.
In the struggle between democracy and dictatorship in the 20th century, Fritz Mondale cast his lot with neither the utopians of the left nor the reactionaries of the right. He stood, instead, for the centrality of the individual, for the sanctity of liberty, and for the pursuit of possibility against the totalitarian impulse.
As attorney general of Minnesota he was instrumental in the Gideon case that gave indigent defendants the right to counsel. He brokered the deal that would end segregation forever in the Democratic Party, long the bastion of Jim Crow.
And then, he came to the Senate. In the mid-1960s, in the seat that Hubert Humphrey had won the year of that Farm Bureau picnic, Sen. Mondale sensed a vital intersection of forces. To him, as he put it, it was "as if we took the intellectual heritage of Franklin Roosevelt, the moral inspiration of John Kennedy, and a decade of pent-up demand for social change and converted them into social reality." As a senator he was a crucial voice for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He led the battle for fair housing in 1968, mastering the Senate in that essential hour.
And he never stopped. His causes included Title IX to open opportunities for women. Head Start and elementary and secondary education. Filibuster reform. Nutrition and antipoverty programs. Workers' rights. Environmental protections. Consumer protections. Early attention to the crisis of climate change. The domestic side of the Church Committee, which revealed the FBI's wiretapping and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. The transformation of the vice-presidency in the Carter years. A challenge to apartheid that ignited the chain of events that led to the release of Nelson Mandela. And the nomination of a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, to run with him on a national ticket.
Walter Mondale was a giant of the Senate, a formidable vice president, and a truth-telling presidential nominee of his party who never stopped standing by principle.
To be sure, it was not always the smoothest of rides. Fritz Mondale knew the vicissitudes of politics as well as any American ever has. When he explored a run for president in 1976, he recalled that "after a year I was running six points behind 'I Don't Know' … and I wanted to challenge him to a debate." Mr. Mondale would tell the story of Sam Donaldson's asking Ronald Reagan in 1984, "What do you want for Christmas?" And Reagan: "Minnesota." When Mondale went to ask George McGovern when did it stop hurting to lose the presidency, Sen. McGovern said, "I don't know. I'll tell you when it happens."
Walter Mondale loved his family. He loved fishing, Shakespeare, Dairy Queen, the United States Senate, Hubert Humphrey, cigars and the state of Minnesota.
And most of all he loved America — its complexities and its hopes, its promise and its possibilities. He thought of himself as a public servant, as a citizen with an obligation to the common good. To him, government was not the enemy, or the problem, but rather a manifestation of love of neighbor and of country.
On the night of his defeat in 1984 he spoke not only to the moment, as painful as it was, but to history, saying: "Let us continue to seek an America that is just and fair. That has been my fight … I'm confident that history will judge us honorably."
And so it has.
One of Mr. Mondale's favorite verses of scripture tells us much. "I have fought the good fight," St. Paul said; "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
The first part of that chapter of Second Timothy is quoted less often, but is worth remembering. "Preach the word," the apostle wrote; "be prepared in season and out of season."
In season and out of season — justice knows no season. Truth knows no season. Freedom knows no season. Fairness knows no season.
Walter Mondale knew that. He lived by that. And today we salute him for that.
There are children in America today who will not go hungry because of Fritz Mondale. There are Black people in America today who can vote, and work, and live more freely and fairly because of Fritz Mondale. There are women in America today who see no limit to their dreams because of Fritz Mondale. There are safer cars in America, there are rivers of clean water in America, there are enclaves of untouched wildlife in America today because of Fritz Mondale.
He never stopped believing in this country. He never stopped fighting for its people. And thankfully, he never stopped defending democracy.
He never stopped. And nor, in his memory, must we.