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Back to Walter F. Mondale Collection


Walter Frederick (“Fritz”) Mondale, a native Minnesotan, has spent most of his life in public service, at the state, national, and international levels. A liberal Democrat and an influential strategist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, he has held the offices of Minnesota attorney general (1960-1964), United States Senator from Minnesota (1964-1976), Vice President of the United States (1977-1981), Democratic Party candidate for President (1984), and ambassador to Japan (1993-1996).

The trajectory of his career placed him at the center of transformations of the Democratic Party, American politics, and the character of the nation. He is most commonly viewed as a traditional New Deal liberal, and this characterization is to a large extent accurate, but falls short of a full definition of the man and masks the significant role he played in helping to shape the political and public-policy scene of the last third of the 20th century. As Senator, he was instrumental in helping to achieve the passage of pivotal legislation on civil rights, consumer protection, education, child protection, and domestic surveillance as well enduring reforms of the Senate filibuster and congressional budget process. As Vice President, the nature of his working relationship with Jimmy Carter reshaped the character of that office. As Presidential candidate, he made history by selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman to appear on a major party presidential ticket. His participation in a variety of public policy forums has helped to define choices and alternatives on a variety of issues, and to educate future leaders.

Walter Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey

Mondale was born in the small town of Ceylon, in southern Minnesota in 1928, and grew up in the equally small town of Elmore. His father, Theodore, was a farmer and Methodist minister, and his mother, Claribel Cowen, a musician and piano teacher. After attending Macalester College in St. Paul, working for a time as executive secretary of Students for Democratic Action in Washington, D.C., and then graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1951, he enlisted for a two-year stint in the U.S. Army (1951-1953). He then returned to the University of Minnesota, graduating cum laude from its Law School in 1956.

During his college years, Mondale was initiated into practical politics as a volunteer worker in Hubert Humphrey’s campaigns for mayor of Minneapolis, as an organizer for the liberal faction of Minnesota’s newly merged Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as a field worker in Humphrey’s initial campaign for election to the U.S. Senate, and as campaign manager for Orville Freeman’s unsuccessful but party-building run for Minnesota attorney general. While earning a living as a lawyer in private practice, he also ran Freeman’s successful campaigns for governor of Minnesota in 1956 and 1958, continued his involvement in other aspects of DFL organization including serving as its state finance director, and gained a reputation as a first-rate political strategist.

Walter Mondale (left) stands with his brother beside a stone wall.

In May of 1960 Governor Freeman appointed Mondale to the post of Minnesota attorney general, following the contentious resignation of the incumbent, and he was elected to the post in his own right that fall. His instinct to serve as a thoughtful, hard-working “people’s lawyer” was given a fortuitous boost during his first months in office by the investigation and exposure of massive fraud in the fund raising activities of officials of the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation.

Mondale’s four years as Minnesota attorney general saw several other initiatives of both state and national significance that broadened the office’s role as protector of the citizenry, including establishing separate consumer-protection, anti-trust, and civil rights units; testing and expanding his legal authority in a suit against a predatory furnace-repair company; and spearheading a brief by 22 state attorneys general that influenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right of indigent defendants in felony cases to receive court-appointed counsel. He also served as a member of the President’s Consumer Advisory Council (1960-1964).

Mondale’s entry into national politics came at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when as chairman of a Credentials Committee subcommittee, he brokered an historic compromise between the segregated Mississippi delegation and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which had challenged the validity of the regular delegation as representatives of the state’s people. Although the compromise incensed the more fervent members of both factions, it defused a potentially explosive and polarizing situation and set the stage for the subsequent transformation of the Democratic Party. As a result of the new rules adopted at the 1964 Convention, segregated delegations were prohibited and participation by previously marginalized groups expanded dramatically.

After Hubert Humphrey was elected U.S. Vice President in 1964, Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag appointed Mondale to replace him in the Senate, where he served through 1976. His first years in office coincided with the passage of the major social and economic programs that defined President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” and he became one of its most reliable supporters, advocating economic, education, consumer protection, and civil rights measures. These included working to muster public support in Minnesota for the Voting Rights Act of 1965; introducing what became the Fair Warning Act of 1966, which forced auto makers to inform car owners of safety defects; and sponsoring legislation to strengthen government inspection and regulation of meat packing plants.

Mondale emerged as a major legislative player with his successful brokering of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in the selling or renting of most types of housing. The most controversial portion of the Johnson Administration’s civil rights agenda, open housing legislation had already failed to pass Congress in 1966 and 1967. Mondale agreed to spearhead another attempt, and through months of negotiations he and his allies garnered support that resulted in the bill’s passage as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Johnson’s Great Society initiatives were gradually overshadowed by the Vietnam War, which Mondale initially supported and later described as one of his greatest regrets. He initially supported the War in the belief that it was essential to blocking the expansion of the Soviet Union but later came to understand that it was an internal civil war and opposed it. Senator Mondale's trip to Vietnam gave him new information about the nature of the conflict as a war for national independence and he was sobered by the critical views of frontline military personnel.Mondale, along with Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, co-chaired United Democrats for Humphrey in his 1968 campaign for the Presidency. Following Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon, Mondale sought and gained membership on committees that dealt with human needs, particularly those of children – the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and its Subcommittee on Children and Youth, the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, a Special Committee on Aging, and, at various times, subcommittees on migratory labor, retirement, labor legislation, employment and poverty, veterans affairs, social security financing, and Indian education.

In 1970 he was made chairman of the Select Committee on Equal Education Opportunity, which studied means of overcoming the educational disadvantages of children from poor and racially segregated neighborhoods and which recommended programs such as magnet schools, special-education projects, educational television, and bilingual education that have become part of the modern educational landscape. He was involved in legislation to strengthen legal services projects; attempted several times to shelve the space shuttle program; attempted unsuccessfully to muster support for improvements in the condition of migrant workers; and introduced a comprehensive child care measure that was passed by the Senate and House but vetoed by President Nixon.

Attorney General of Minnesota Walter Mondale

As Mondale’s star rose, his role within Congress broadened. He was instrumental in passing the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which created the legislature’s process for formulating a budget and established its capacity for fiscal analyses. The Budget Act created the fiscal scorekeeper of legislative proposals (the Congressional Budget Office) as well as the reconciliation process and budget committees in the House and Senate. These steps formed the backbone of today’s legislative process and surprised some liberals. Mondale explained that he took a lead in establishing a rigorous budgetary process because he was convinced that fiscal responsibility was a foundation for the credibility of liberals in government and for protecting the most vulnerable from inflation.

Mondale also led a successful effort to change the cloture requirement for ending a filibuster from 2/3 to 3/5 of Senate members. This created the 60 vote rule that currently applies.In addition to taking the lead on fiscal discipline and Senate procedure, he helped direct what became known as the Church Committee as chair of its domestic task force. Under Mondale’s direction, it investigated and conducted hearings on intelligence abuses by the IRS and the FBI. Among its revelations was the FBI’s extensive surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and what appeared to be efforts to undermine Dr. King’s marriage and suggest that he commit suicide. Some observers consider the Church Committee to be the most thorough and significant government investigation of U.S. intelligence services in the country’s history.As Mondale’s stature rose, he was increasingly seen as a serious presidential candidate and emerged as a leading candidate for the 1976 election. He launched an exploratory effort before deciding in 1974 that he would not pursue it.

His book The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency (New York: D. McKay Co., 1975) suggested reforms that might curb what he perceived as the abuses of an “imperial presidency.” He made a concerted effort to broaden his knowledge of foreign affairs and foreign policy issues, and emerged as a leading Democratic advocate for military and economic assistance to the Middle East, support of Israel, maintenance of strong military relations with Western European allies, as well as placing limitation on first-strike weapons.In 1976, Jimmy Carter selected Mondale as his running mate in his successful campaign for United States President. Mondale participated in the first vice-presidential debate against his Republican counterpart, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, and was widely reported as the winner of the debate. His performance during the debate and on the campaign trail was credited with providing a critical boost to Carter's in what turned out to be a close election.

Left to right: Minnesota Farmers' Union president Ed Christianson, Senator Walter Mondale and Dr. Blue Carstenson of the National Farmers' Union

As Vice President, Mondale and Carter redefined the office’s roles and responsibilities. During Carter’s initial interview of Mondale as a potential running mate, he expressed a clear idea of expanding the Vice President’s role. For his part, Mondale had no interest in occupying a merely ceremonial office nor of suffering the humiliation that Humphrey had endured in that office. Mondale and Carter together agreed on a vision of the Vice Presidential office as playing a substantive and meaningful role in the Administration, a view that Carter shared and supported. Following the election, Mondale submitted an 11-page memo to Carter outlining this new role. At its core was the suggestion that the Vice President would be a general advisor, liaison to important constituents, and trouble-shooter who avoided getting tied down with narrow assignments. To fulfill this new role, Vice President Mondale and his key staff were given an unprecedented level of access to the President and his senior advisers and to the flow of information in the White House. Scholars and commentators have given Mondale and Carter credit for invigorating the office of Vice President and for setting an example emulated by subsequent administrations of a productive working relationship between President and Vice President. Unlike past Vice Presidents, Mondale was given an office in the West Wing of the White House, a powerful symbol of the Vice President’s new institutional standing. He participated in the selection of Cabinet members and other officials. He or his staff members headed several task forces assigned to develop programs, priorities, and long-range goals for the administration, including an economic stimulus package and the President’s Reorganization Project to recommend improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal bureaucracy. He lunched privately with Carter every Monday; attended the White House weekly foreign policy breakfasts, Cabinet meetings, and intelligence briefings; and received, and often commented on, copies of all major memos sent to and from Carter. Carter instructed his staff and cabinet to respond to requests from the Vice President as though they came from the president. Three of Mondale’s senior staff--Richard Moe, David Aaron, and Bert Carp--were appointed to important policy posts, his chief of staff Richard Moe was given several special assignments, and the Presidential and Vice Presidential staffs were coordinated in other ways. Every vice president since Mondale has had an office in the West Wing and has had a working relationship with the President based to varying degrees on the Mondale-Carter model. In an article in Minnesota History (Fall 2006), Richard Moe characterized Carter’s endorsement of a redefined vice presidency as “a gift to the nation.”

Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill administers the vice presidential oath of office to Walter Mondale as Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Joan Mondale and others look on.

Vice President Mondale made a number of significant policy contributions. His most visible impacts may be in foreign policy. He is credited with opening the discussions with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat that eventually led to the September 1978 Camp David Summit. His trip to China in 1979 broke through the deadlock in Sino-U.S. relations and pioneered today’s framework for economic relations and trade and for cultural and educational exchanges. In addition, he initiated difficult negotiations with South Africa’s Apartheid leaders that later led to peaceful regime change and to a democratic process. He also intervened to save refugees from the Vietnam War in South East Asia (known as “boat people”) and to offer them asylum, which ended up resettling Hmong Cambodians in Minnesota and other parts of the country. His July 1979 speech to the U.N. Conference on Indochinese Refugees has been credited with galvanizing nations to take in refugees and with offering one of the most eloquent statements on global responsibility for human rights. Reminding his audience that 41 years earlier another international meeting had failed to welcome refugees (namely, Jews in Nazi Germany), he implored the international community: “Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful - something profound - to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”

Mondale’s support for a new era of U.S. leadership for human rights coincided with a top-secret process to transform the American military from mechanized to digitized processes, which led to the cruise missile, Predator aircraft, and other breakthroughs. Mondale and the Carter administration viewed a strong U.S. military as a platform for improving its non-nuclear capabilities to protect America and its interests, and as a tool for enhancing its leverage for advancing human rights. Mondale played a significant role in seeking support in Congress for some of the Carter Administration’s more controversial measures, including a new Panama Canal treaty, a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and efforts to formulate a national energy policy. His wife Joan, an artist and craftswoman with many ties to the arts community, was appointed the Administration’s ambassador for the arts and carried out exhibits, road tours, media events, and other activities aimed at raising the public profile of art and artists, as well as serving as honorary chair of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities--the first time a vice presidential spouse was given a specific role and duties.

Mondale was instrumental in helping Carter prevail over a strong challenge by Senator Edward Kennedy for the 1980 presidential nomination. However, the hostage crisis in Iran, persistent inflation, public concerns over economic security and America’s military defenses, and other issues led to the victory of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in the general election. Following the loss, Mondale worked in the Washington office of the Chicago law firm of Winston and Strawn as a general counsel, and began immersing himself in study and consultations on public policy matters in the hope of generating new ideas for a revitalized Democratic candidacy.

Vice-President Walter Mondale addressing a joint session of the House and Senate; Senator Jack Davies and Representative Harry Sieben Jr. presiding

He sought and won the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1984. In a bold move that he hoped would counter Reagan’s popularity and mark him as an innovative leader, he selected Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate. However, he faced the disadvantage of running against a popular incumbent, controversy over the tax returns of Ferraro’s husband, and a public that had turned more conservative. Mondale famously declared in his acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention that he would raise taxes to control the federal budget deficit, proclaiming: "Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Although Mondale’s comment was heavily criticized by Republicans during the campaign, Reagan and his Vice President George H.W. Bush would later increase taxes as Mondale predicted.

Mondale returned to Minnesota and joined the Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey & Whitney as senior counsel. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to Japan, where he served until 1996. As ambassador, he helped negotiate several U.S.-Japan security agreements, including a resolution to the controversy over the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, as well as a number of trade agreements and educational exchange arrangements. Following his ambassadorship, he co-chaired, with former Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum, the Aspen Institute’s Campaign Finance Reform Project (1997-1998), and traveled to Indonesia as President Clinton’s special envoy to discuss economic reforms (March 1998).Mondale entered the public arena one last time in November of 2002, when incumbent U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash with less than two weeks left in his reelection campaign against the Republican Norm Coleman. At the request of Wellstone’s sons, Mondale agreed to replace him as the DFL candidate to allow the election to proceed, and lost in a close race.

Mondale continued to pursue an active career with Dorsey & Whitney in its Asia law practice group; as a director on several non-profit and corporate boards; as a member of the Mansfield Foundation Board, which he chairs; and as a public affairs lecturer and educator, particularly through the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

This sketch was a collaborative effort by several Mondale experts: Lydia Lucas (retired from MNHS), Lawrence Jacobs (Director, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute and Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota), Joel K. Goldstein (Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law), and David Hage (Mondale biographer and Health Editor, Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities).