Walter Mondale — former vice president, U.S. senator, diplomat, presidential nominee and son of Minnesota — has died at age 93. To say that his life was one devoted to public service does not begin to describe all that he gave his state, his country, the world.
The son of a pastor from small-town Minnesota, Mondale served in the Army during the Korean War and went to law school on the GI Bill. His worldview was inclusive and expansive, and he credited his faith with imbuing in him a deep respect for all people that was to guide his life in politics.
As vice president, Mondale would dramatically reshape that office, creating with then-President Jimmy Carter a true team approach that would make the VP an active partner in the presidency. It is a pattern that nearly every president has followed since.
As a senator, Mondale helped push breakthrough legislation in civil rights, women's rights, environmental protections, fair housing and family issues. He brought a keen eye to foreign affairs and was credited with the discussions that led to the historic Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel. It was Mondale's intervention to save Southeast Asian refugees from the Vietnam War that resulted in asylum for many, forever changing the face of Minnesota by sparking a major resettlement of Hmong Cambodians here and across the country.
As his party's nominee for president in 1984, he shattered convention by naming the first woman to run on a presidential ticket, Geraldine Ferraro. It would take until 2020 before a woman would be elected vice president. "I remember the day [Ferraro] was announced," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "It felt to me like anything and everything was possible."
Mondale was a lifelong mentor for Klobuchar, from the time she was an intern in his vice presidential office (with an inauspicious first assignment of cataloging furniture) and across her career, including her own presidential run. Mondale, Klobuchar said, always saw the job as "bigger than himself, and a big part of that was bringing along the next generation of leaders. He had such a strong moral core," she said. "It defined everything he did, how he treated people, the hard fights he took on."
After serving as Minnesota attorney general, two terms in the U.S. Senate, a term as vice president and after serving as U.S. ambassador to Japan, Mondale was pressed into service again for the saddest of duties. Following the death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash less than two weeks before Election Day in 2002, supporters turned to Mondale, then 74, as a replacement. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a friend of the family, managed the short-lived campaign. "He didn't hesitate," she recalled, though the duty was a brutal one. When he lost, Smith recalled, he was most concerned about the young people on the staff and volunteers who had already been through so much. "He didn't want them to lose hope, to lose faith in politics," she said. "That was his way. Always thinking of others."
Smith, too, found a trusted mentor in Mondale. When she was about to be appointed lieutenant governor, Mondale unearthed the original memo he had worked on with Carter about changing the vice president's role. "He wanted me to have it as a guide," she said. "He always made me laugh. He had this self-deprecating, no-B.S., dry Midwestern humor. He remembered things about people."
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School, as well as the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies, said the man he got to know was warm, funny, engaged and on top of political and policy developments to the last. After 17 years of teaching together, Jacobs says he still called him "Mr. Mondale."
In private as in public, he said, Mondale was "the most respectful, decent guy many said they ever worked with. He had strong views, but also felt like what you believe should not come at the cost of someone else's self respect."
Jacobs called Mondale "a builder of modern American government," launching budget reforms instrumental in creating the modern-day Congressional Budget Office — including the reconciliation process that President Joe Biden would later use to push the American Rescue Plan, with its massive coronavirus relief, through Congress.
Jacobs said Mondale also played a pivotal role in the career of a young senator who had lost his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash that also injured his two sons. Mondale camped out in the hospital room with the recently elected Sen. Joe Biden, urging him to stay in the Senate, saying it could become part of his family, Jacobs recalled. Biden would later say that when he had to decide whether to run with Barack Obama, his first call was to Mondale, who persuaded him to join the ticket.
In a 1984 introductory video for the Democratic National Convention, Mondale told delegates that, "Dad always taught us that we had a duty to make America better and to help others. That's supposed to be what America is all about. Every child ought to have a chance to fulfill his or her dreams. I want to make our nation and our world safer. I want to make it more hopeful."
Minnesota thanks you, Mr. Mondale, for a lifetime of living out that simple and powerful creed.