A year ago, when he had just been removed from the White House office he enjoyed as vice president of the United States and severed from the public payroll for the first time in 20 years, Walter F. Mondale painted an idyllic picture of the life that was about to open up to him as a private citizen and highly paid Washington lawyer.
It would be, he said, a life of the mind, of reading and reflection. His book list would be prepared by historian Barbara Tuchman, with supplemental readings suggested by leading economists, businessmen and national security analysts. In pursuit of wisdom, he would travel to China, Japan, the Middle East, spend 30 days in Europe, and become a familiar figure at the universities and research centers of his own land.
It was, Mondale wrote in a slightly self-conscious first-person article, entitled "The Re- education of Walter Mondale," published last November by The New York Times Magazine, "a chance to refresh myself spiritually and restock the shelves intellectually."
That was 1981. This is 1982. Mondale has looked up from his reading and he has noted something remarkable: the 1984 election campaign is only two years away.
And so he has, like other young scholars before him, faced up to the conflict between the life of the mind and the demands of the workaday world.
If you covet a glimpse of Mondale these days, do not look in the library; try the airport, instead. Last Wednesday, he flew off to Tampa to do some anthropological field work at the state fair. On Thursday, it was on to Tallahassee for some intellectual exchanges with members of the legislature and a scholarly lunch with Democratic Gov. Bob Graham. On Friday, he went to the source of much wisdom, a Dallas newspaper editorial board luncheon, and then made a speech to the teachers of tomorrow's leaders at a National Education Association convention.
Tonight he will be addressing one of the most prestigious scholarly groups in America: the Maryland Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. Next week, the course of scholarship will take him to eight fund-raisers for seven Democratic congressmen in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. The March calendar, still incomplete, lists 11 events in 10 states, all of them, except his native Minnesota, blessed not just with rich intellectual resources but presidential primaries as well.
In olden days, it is said, scholars frequently followed a favorite professor from city to city and university to university, picking up the crumbs of wisdom he scattered along the way. In our own time, the spectacle of the celebrity on the honorary-degree-hunting circuit is not unknown.
For some reason, in the Mondale entourage, the badges of wisdom he is collecting are referred to as "political IOUs," and Mondale seems determined to have more of them earlier in the chase for the 1984 nomination than any other Democrat.
When I caught up with him the other day after a cable television taping in Washington (another part of his limitless urge for scholarly discourse), he said that by June or so, he would tear himself regretfully away from his first loves --the law, literature and learning--and "work almost full-time" for the Democrats.
It is his goal, he said, to campaign personally this year for "15 to 20 percent of the Democratic candidates for the House and Senate and governor"--a number that translates to close to 100 worthies.
By coincidence, the Democratic rules committee has just agreed to save about 15 percent of the seats at the 1984 convention for elected and party officials, including most governors, senators and representatives. If Mondale is as efficient as he is forehanded, almost everyone for whom he campaigns will be in a position to repay the favor with a vote.
When I asked Mondale why he was making this exceptionally heavy commitment of time in 1982, he said this was going to be "a year of great debate" on the "radical and destructive" program of the Reagan administration, "and I want to make the case. People are suffering from these policies, and we cannot wait for 1984 to turn them around."
"Besides," he added, "I learn a great deal from traveling and listening. If we Democrats are going to reshape our thinking, it has to be more than an academic exercise. We have to learn for ourselves what the American people are prepared to do."
And having made it clear that his motive was scholarly--not crassly political--he glanced at his watch and hurried away. Watching him go, the thought occurred that if Edward Kennedy, John Glenn, Reubin Askew, Gary Hart and all the rest want to catch up with Walter Mondale, they really better start hitting the books-- especially the book that he is always studying, the Official Airline Guide.