Walter Mondale’s mentor, senator and former vice president Hubert Humphrey, was known as the Happy Warrior. The nickname is more appropriate for Mondale, who died Monday at 93. He was also a successful warrior, right up until the disastrous 1980 Carter-Mondale reelection campaign. Mondale had run several important campaigns for giants of Minnesota politics before being appointed and reelected as the state’s attorney general and appointed and twice reelected as a U.S. senator. Carter tapped him in 1976 as his running mate for his successful run for the White House.
Then came 1980: the Democrats lost in all but six states plus Washington, D.C. Victories in the candidates’ home states of Georgia and Minnesota accounted for nearly half of their pathetic Electoral College showing of 49 votes. Democrats were mourning in America as Ronald Reagan rode a landslide into the White House.
It would be hard to do worse than that, but somehow Mondale managed. He faced off against President Reagan in 1984, at about the height of Reagan’s popularity. In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, Mondale promised, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
The ticket of Mondale and New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro lost 49 states, squeaking by only in Minnesota. Afterward, Reagan’s people were kicking themselves for not putting a little more effort into Minnesota.
That was enough for Mondale, for a while. He retired from the Senate and went back to practicing law in Minnesota. President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to Japan and then special envoy to Indonesia. For the most part, however, Mondale spent his later years doing the post–vice-presidential equivalent of puttering around in the garage: he taught and organized events at the University of Minnesota and served on the boards of nonprofits and corporations and a campaign-finance bipartisan commission.
Then, in 2002, he did something truly daunting. Liberal Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone had been campaigning for reelection when he died in a plane crash 11 days before voters cast their ballots. Local Democrats had to find a candidate quickly in what was shaping up as a decidedly non-Democrat-friendly cycle. Barely a year had passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, and President George W. Bush still enjoyed Sun God–sized approval ratings.
Mondale agreed to run for the suddenly open seat. His candidacy was billed as a continuation of Wellstone’s legacy. Mondale demonstrated his fighting spirit by again promising to raise taxes.
He ran hard for 11 days, attacking his opponent, Norm Coleman, as a shape-shifter and a party-changer. Polls showed the candidates neck and neck. After the returns came in, Mondale had fallen short by about 50,000 votes. It was a feat that proved Mondale to be a sort of Bizarro Reagan: he had run for and lost an election in all 50 states.
In his autobiography The Good Fight, Mondale blames this loss on Wellstone’s funeral, which fellow Democrats turned into a chance to score points against Republicans. While the memorial “started off as a beautiful tribute to Paul and the people who died with him,” Mondale said, “speech by speech it gradually began to take on a political tone, and by the end it had turned into an unintentional rally for Democrats.” As a result, “The Republicans who had come to honor Paul felt tricked and abused, and one by one they began to walk out,” taking a lot of voters with them.
Word through the grapevine was that Mondale didn’t want to talk about the 2002 election. So when I got the chance to interview him in 2007, I didn’t bring it up. In retrospect, that seems like a mistake. He certainly treated every other subject as fair game, even when the questions were impertinent.
Me: Did you always want to be president?
Mondale: Uh, not always. When I was in the first grade, I didn’t give it much thought. But you know, as I—
Me: How about the second grade?
Mondale: I was still unsure of it. I would say that, you know, probably mid-thirties or something like that.
Me: How many funerals did you have to attend as vice president?
Mondale: Only one. I didn’t want to get on the croak list.
Unlike many politicians, Mondale actually had a decent sense of humor.
In the 1984 election, the chief voter concern about Reagan was that he was getting too old. When the age issue was put to the president in a debate, Reagan said that he wouldn’t allow his opponent’s youth and inexperience to be used against him. It was a great line that ended Mondale’s one outside shot at election. No one laughed harder at the joke than Mondale himself.
But in all the laughter, many people missed the razor-sharp jab at the Carter-Mondale administration that Reagan followed up with: “I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
Mondale exhibited not so much a false modesty as a calculated modesty. When asked if he thought he played some role in Carter’s close 1976 victory over Gerald Ford, he cautioned, “You get spanked for bragging out here.” He laid out the case for where he might have helped Carter but said that he’d “rather others conclude what effect that had. You know, I think it was effective, but I don’t know.”
There is a downside for vice presidents who are deeply invested in their president’s administration. Their successes are your successes, true. And their failures are your failures.
The closeness can lead to a lack of perspective about why you lost and make it that much harder to mount a comeback. In Mondale’s estimation, the Democrats lost in 1980 because “the ball kept bouncing against us.”
They were unlucky, he said, cursed with “very high inflation . . . high interest rates . . . the capture of our hostages in Iran . . . the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets. . . . And then we had a Democratic challenge and a third-party challenge.” It all made for a “very tough year.” And then, four years later, voters already had fixed in their minds what a Mondale administration might look like.
Was it a wrong impression? I pressed Mondale on the Iran question because he was willing to admit something extraordinary but then deny what most people would take to be its plain meaning.
In November 1979, Iranian militants seized 52 Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The new Islamic government took custody of the Americans. The Carter administration negotiated for the release of the hostages for more than a year but failed to win their release.
Then Reagan was elected. Carter said during the presidential debate that the world’s biggest problem was nuclear proliferation. Reagan argued instead that the two key problems were Soviet ambition and American weakness, and he telegraphed a willingness to use force when necessary.
Here is what Carter’s former vice president admitted to me in 2007: “[Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, sweet guy, released our hostages the minute Reagan was sworn in. The minute.”
A straightforward interpretation of these events would be that Khomeini feared what Reagan might do about the hostage situation and decided not to take any chances.
Now listen in on Mondale’s interpretation.
“I think if we had been reelected, he might have released them earlier. I don’t know. He was kind of a mean old man, and I think he was playing cat and mouse with those people.”
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