Walter F. Mondale, the former U.S. senator, vice-president, presidential nominee and ambassador who died Monday night at the age of 93, will be remembered for being at once the last and the first.
He was the last Democrat of the old New Deal tradition, drawing on the support of working-class people and the striving while harbouring a devout belief in the role of government programs to ease the harshness of life. Today’s Democrats have a far different profile and have witnessed the flight of blue-collar voters to the Donald Trump Republicans.
And he was the first vice-president to have a substantial role in Washington – beyond being a cipher created by the Founding Fathers to assume power in the event of a president’s death. His insistence on having weekly meetings over lunch with President Jimmy Carter and having his office be part of all the paper flow to the chief executive set a precedent that permitted Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden and now Kamala Harris to be important figures in U.S. political life.
Along the way he helped shape the political life of another, earlier Minnesota giant (Hubert Humphrey, also a vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee); prevailed in a brutal nomination fight (against former astronaut John Glenn and Senator Gary Hart, both of whom sought to portray him as a remnant of a long-ago past); selected the first female vice-presidential nominee (Representative Geraldine Ferraro); and was defeated by Ronald Reagan in a landslide (winning only his home state). Throughout it all he lived the Book of Micah admonition related to him by his faith-fortified father, the stern pastor from the tiny town of Elmore, Minn. (population 904 in the decade of his birth), to “do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
“He was the kind of public servant we may never see again – the total opposite of today’s politician,” said Maxine Isaacs, his long-time press secretary, in an interview hours after Mr. Mondale died. “He was modest and self-effacing.”
He possessed, then personified, a surface contradiction: both the prairie populism of the upper plains (permitting his rivals to cast him as a wild progressive) and the parsimony of rural penuriousness (wondering aloud to his wife, Joan, whether the suit he was thinking of buying for the launch of his 1984 presidential campaign was too expensive). His public persona, too, was a surface contradiction: The public saw him as a stiff if not boring figure of great rectitude but lacking in flair, while in private he was simply Fritz – informal, wry, even a bit devilish.
“He could be hilarious, and sentimental, and he read deeply in literature and history,” said Martin Kaplan, a speechwriter during the Mondale vice-presidency and, later, the presidential campaign. “More than once he’d show me a passage from Shakespeare, marvelling at it, asking, ‘How does he do so much with so few words?’“ Mr. Kaplan thought it was Mr. Mondale’s way of saying “that a draft I’d given him could stand to lose a few pages.”
But it was as vice-president that Mr. Mondale had enormous impact – a sentence that could not have been written about scores of former occupants of the position, including more famous figures such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Walter Mondale played an indispensable role in transforming the vice-presidency, historically our most disparaged position, into a consequential political institution capable of contributing to good government,” said Joel Goldstein, the Saint Louis University scholar considered the leading expert on the U.S. vice-presidency. “He imagined a new vision of the office and identified the resources needed for it to succeed, and through his exemplary performance created a model that administrations of both parties imitated. That initiative was consistent with his belief that government could play a constructive role in creating a more secure and just society.’'
Among those he mentored were Thomas E. Donilon, Barack Obama’s national security adviser; Susan Estrich, the first woman to manage a presidential campaign; Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration; and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator who ran for president last year.
He taught lessons and, in that disastrous presidential campaign, learned them as well.
“A lot of politics is theory,” he said after clinching the 1984 nomination. “None of it is theory to me anymore. I know this country and every corner of it. I have been everywhere – in factories, in stores, in communities. It is a process of preparedness for the presidency that cannot be matched. On the road, I have really learned this country.”
But the country never learned enough about Mr. Mondale to embrace him, and besides, it was in thrall to the silky Baileys Irish Cream rhetoric of Mr. Reagan.
For years, Mr. Mondale told the story of encountering Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who lost 49 states a dozen years before Mr. Mondale registered a similar performance, at the luggage carousel in the Washington airport now named for Mr. Reagan.
“How long does it take for the hurt to wear off?” Mr. Mondale asked. Mr. McGovern was quick to answer: “I’ll call you, Fritz, when it does.”
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