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Walter Mondale: Learning to Live With Fritz

At first glance, the presidential hopeful seems anything but ideal. But a look at his past reminds you what a decent man he’s always been

Walter Mondale, Presidential candidate

American Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, campaigns in Illinois, September 11th, 1984

Robert R McElroy/Getty

This is the season when presidential candidates play pile-on, with the front-runner winding up at the bottom of the heap. Now, it’s Walter F. Mondale who’s getting tackled. Senator John Glenn accuses him of “vague gobbledygook.” Colorado’s Gary Hart says, “Mondale is mush.” California’s Alan Cranston complained to Mondale that, “by making so many commitments, you’ve left us without any idea what’s really important to you.” And South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings called Mondale a “good lap dog –he’ll give them everything they want. He’ll lick every hand.”

Such intramural gibes about Mondale have the sting of truth, but they are primarily seasonal expressions of dissent. A few months from now, unless the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire do something politically perverse, Mondale will be the nominee of the Democratic party and, like it or not, the others will rally to his banner. Then, his careful campaign strategy, previously denounced as stodgy and lacking in inspiration and new ideas, will seem positively brilliant.

By then, Walter Mondale himself will also seem very different. The news media will focus more substantively on his virtues and his flaws, on who he is. America will learn that in this era of conservative political hegemony, the Democratic party has chosen a real liberal as its presidential nominee. And a real politician as well. Not an actor or a farmer or a space cadet, but someone whose entire adult life has been consumed by the battles of governing and politicking, by the grist of building coalitions, by the calculations of staking out positions on hundreds of public controversies.

The more closely these points are examined, the less pale and mushy Mondale will appear. In fact, if Mondale does win the nomination, then we are headed toward the clearest choice that any recent presidential election has offered – a certified liberal versus a true conservative.

Mondale benefits, just as Reagan does, from always being underestimated by political rivals. He is a much tougher character than his campaign images would suggest. Yet, like Reagan, his political outlook is deeply embedded in the past. Reagan draws on 19th-century laissez-faire conservatism, while Mondale follows the New Deal tradition of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party and his mentor, the late Senator Hubert Humphrey. That’s a noble inheritance more vibrant today than most conservatives recognize, but neither perspective produces the kind of forward-looking ideas that might redefine our political debates. That’s too bad, because this is what the country needs.

Can Walter Mondale, with his creaky voice and bland manner, actually defeat the mellifluous, sunny performer who lives in the White House? Though I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it, I think he can. But for now, political prognostication serves little purpose; it’s far more essential to assess what his personal virtues or liabilities might be, should he ever capture the presidency.

Like many others, I have been less than thrilled by the idea of Mondale as the Democratic candidate. He seems so old-shoe and predictable when America needs a leader willing to make bold departures. Nevertheless, the world would be safer with Mondale in the White House, and we could all sleep better. He is a good and decent man, experienced and intelligent, who would dramatically improve the tone and direction of our national government. Recently, I talked to a number of old hands from Democratic politics, people who support rival candidates and whom I expected would knock Mondale. I was surprised by their responses: They feel comfortable with the idea of a Mondale presidency. From his past, they trust his values and his political sensibilities. In addition to being the overwhelming front-runner, Mondale seems to be everyone else’s second choice.

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“All public figures have some discrepancy between their public personalities and their private lives,” said a former White House aide who served under Mondale when he was vice-president. “But I think there’s much less of that discrepancy with Mondale. What you see is what you get.”

Many people who have known or worked for Mondale say much the same thing, but in one important respect, this perception is not quite true. In person, up close in a small group or at a friendly luncheon table, Mondale becomes a sparkling personality, a man of genuine wit and charm. This is notable because so little of that spontaneity is displayed when Mondale appears before large public forums. At a private luncheon a few weeks after the Carter-Mondale ticket had been wiped out by the Reagan landslide in 1980, Mondale disarmed and dazzled a table of cynical news people with his self-deprecating humor and astute analysis of the defeat. Perhaps he was already campaigning for 1984, but I was struck by how loose and self-confident he seemed, given the drubbing he had just gone through. This is not a man with manic ego problems.

“He’s too damned Norwegian,” complained an old friend and former Senate colleague. Maybe that’s the explanation – Mondale’s Scandinavian genes instruct him to repress emotional displays in public. He loves big cigars, for instance, but you will never find a photo of him smoking one. Some of his advisers wish he would show more of his private self at the rostrum; Mondale is at his best, they think, when he gets genuinely angry, throws away the script and talks from the gut.

Some feel the assessment of Mondale by Roy Spence, the candidate’s media adviser, sums up part of the problem. “Mondale,” says Spence, “dares to be cautious.” Caution, indeed, usually prevails not simply as a speaking style but as his basic method. He studies an issue, listens to contending voices and takes his own good time in deciding what, if anything, he will say about it. He did call for withdrawal of the marines from Lebanon, but it took him three months to make up his mind.

This is a habit developed over 25 years – during which time he worked his way up the ladder from attorney general of Minnesota to the Senate to the vice-presidency – and Mondale is not likely to change now. Critics note that each of those rungs was first attained by appointment, not by election, which meant that Mondale got ahead in politics by carefully developing the patronage of his elders. “Cool it, make no mistakes, do your job and you’ll be rewarded – that’s been the lesson of his political life,” observed one former political associate.

This quality proved disastrously blinding during the Vietnam era. Partly because Humphrey supported the war, partly because Mondale believed in it himself, the young senator from Minnesota did not declare his opposition to continued U.S. involvement in Indochina until the fall of 1969. Then he made a classy speech, admitting that he had been wrong.

Caution can make a president look weak, of course, but it can also save lives and prevent tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine Walter Mondale’s deploying U.S. forces overseas as casually as Ronald Reagan has done.

As a very junior senator, Mondale took on the defense barons of the Senate – hawkish committee chairmen like John Stennis and Richard Russell, who always prevailed on Pentagon weapons votes. The key issue was nuclear aircraft carriers. Mondale regarded them as wasteful, highly vulnerable in war and outrageously expensive; he led the first fight against this navy boondoggle and got clobbered. But he stayed with it over the years. During the Carter administration, when Congress authorized billions for an extra nuclear carrier, Mondale urged a presidential veto. After a lot of heavy lobbying, the veto was sustained. The carrier issue is one of those “new ideas” that Senator Gary Hart proffers these days to demonstrate that he is different. It’s a claim that particularly rankles Mondale’s folks, who remember that their man was staking out this battle when Hart was still a Denver lawyer.

As a senator, Mondale stood up on a lot of defense-spending issues, from the ABM system to the Trident submarine and the B-1 bomber. He even challenged funding for the space shuttle, a position he would probably like to forget now that the spacecraft is flying and popular. In those years, he was among a gallant band of liberal senators who thought the fight against Pentagon trinkets was worth making, though they knew they’d probably lose. In the process, Mondale caught a certain amount of flak from his usual allies, the labor unions, which supported these weapons systems for the jobs they would provide.

Mondale’s political values are clearly defined in his Senate record. He is an orthodox New Deal liberal, a loyal advocate for those constituencies that Franklin Roosevelt forged into a majority coalition – organized labor, farmers, Catholics, blacks, Jews, schoolteachers, factory workers, the poor. Reagan believes government is the problem; Mondale believes government is essential to the solution. Reagan wants to eliminate government aid to various sectors; Mondale wants to protect and, in such cases as education, expand federal aid.

Is Mondale’s New Deal legacy a millstone or an asset? Every four years, political commentators proclaim that FDR’s coalition is dead, but the constituent groups are still the core of the Democratic party, and no Democratic nominee can hope to win the presidency without them. One reason Mondale is so far ahead of his rivals in the polls is that he really speaks for those constituencies and shares their values. Some were surprised recently when the National Organization for Women endorsed Mondale; after all, he wouldn’t appear to be the ideal candidate for feminists. But the critics forget that a decade ago, Mondale was leading a lonely legislative fight for aid to women and children, from day-care centers to adoption services.

Mondale’s liberal credentials are most dramatically stated on the issue of race. In 1968, when civil rights was still a popular cause, Mondale was floor manager for open-housing legislation. But by the early Seventies, when other politicians were edging away from racial integration, Mondale took on a thankless assignment – chairing a Senate select committee on equal educational opportunity. The nation was exhausted by racial conflict, tired of hearing about blacks and busing and school desegregation. Mondale’s committee hearings produced a comprehensive report that directly resisted those negative currents and made a case for both racial integration and educational reform. It led to new federal aid for school-integration plans – aid that Reagan has tried to eliminate. Black political leaders remember these events; they know Mondale stayed with them when the politics of race was turning the other way.

One of Mondale’s proudest accomplishments as a senator is a fight that few remember – the 1975 battle to reform the Senate rules for blocking filibusters. For generations, liberals had lost civil-rights legislation to Southern-led filibusters. But Mondale, in a fight that tied up the Senate for more than six weeks and generated enormous pressure from his own party leaders to relent, succeeded in weakening the right-wing ploy.

The clear outlines of Mondale’s liberalism were blurred somewhat by his years as vice-president, serving under a president who was much more conservative than he. As a practical matter, this situation compelled Mondale to dissent in the privacy of the Oval Office. Inside the Carter White House, Mondale played liberal point man and frustrated political counselor to a chief executive who did not fully grasp the dynamics of the party he was trying to lead.

Carter’s own memoirs, Keeping Faith, testify to this. Mondale argued against the grain embargo of 1980 and against draft registration. He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Carter to make conciliatory budget concessions to the liberal wing of the party. He was furious with the Camp David theater of 1979, when Carter made his celebrated “malaise” speech and fired several cabinet members. “It was an unorthodox thing to do,” Carter wrote, “and [Mondale] was convinced that it would result in political catastrophe.” Mondale was right. In fact, reading Carter’s own White House recollections, one obvious theme is Mondale’s political savvy about Washington, Congress and the country.

The most reassuring evidence that Walter Mondale would, as president, manage foreign policy wisely and well is the hostile testimony from Zbigniew Brzezinski, superhawk of the Carter White House. Brzezinski, as Carter’s national-security adviser, was eager to get it on with the Russians and pushed Carter to intervene with U.S. force in any number of global flare-ups. In his memoirs, Brzezinski disparages Mondale as excessively vain and superficial and too deferential to domestic political interests, though he concedes that Mondale had an “innate ability to focus on the truly significant or central, without getting bogged down in minutiae.”

“In time, disagreements between us gradually surfaced,” Brzezinski wrote in Power and Principle. “For one thing, I could sense that Fritz was uneasy about my inclination to make an issue early on of the Soviet aggressiveness in the third world. I argued that otherwise, détente would be jeopardized, while Fritz felt that my reactions were endangering SALT… I also did not share his strong inclination to impose very strict restrictions on CIA activities… Fritz approached the issue from the standpoint of domestic civil liberties.”

Still, Mondale is an orthodox liberal, which means he believes in the fundamentals of the Cold War. There is not much evidence to suggest that he would break out of the conventional thought patterns that have guided American foreign policy since World War II, the mindset that produced two wars and the nuclear-arms race. As a very young man, alongside Hubert Humphrey, he battled Communist activists for control of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party and remembers them as nasty and ruthless. In 1973, as a senator, he toured the Soviet Union and was chilled by his encounters there. As in all matters, his foreign-policy views are cautious and traditional to Democratic politics; he has not aligned himself with that younger group of up-and-coming Democrats who remember Vietnam and are zealously anti-interventionist.

Nevertheless, a Mondale foreign policy would be, if not boldly creative, at least moderate: arms control and annual summits with the Soviet leadership. Negotiations toward a regional settlement in Central America. Economic aid preferred over arms peddling. The defense of human rights valued again as a principle of our global relations. He would not, as Jesse Jackson promises, bring some of our troops home from Asia and Europe. He would not, as George McGovern proposes, actually cut the existing Pentagon budget. He would not, as Alan Cranston suggests, impose a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of new nuclear arms to see if the Soviets would do the same.

Compared to those advanced ideas, Mondale seems a bit pale and timid. Only he’s not going to be running against Jackson, McGovern and Cranston a few months from now. His opponent will be Ronald Reagan. Then, I think, Walter Mondale’s sense of caution, his personal values and his promises will begin to look better and better.

In This Article: Coverwall, Democrats, Ronald Reagan

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