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Walter F. Mondale, Carter’s vice president who lost White House bid, dies at 93

Walter F. Mondale, the former Democratic senator and vice president died April 19 at his home in Minneapolis at age 93. (Video: Reuters)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Mr. Mondale’s defeat in the 1984 presidential election contributed to a Republican takeover of the Senate for the first time since the mid-1950s. Republicans had won control of the Senate in the 1980 elections. This version has been updated.

Walter F. Mondale, the former Democratic senator and vice president whose unusually candid and forward-looking bid for the pinnacle of American politics was blocked by President Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection victory in 1984, died April 19 at his home in Minneapolis. He was 93.

Family friend and spokeswoman Kathy Tunheim announced the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Mr. Mondale was a major player on the national political stage for two decades, beginning in 1964, when he was appointed to the Senate seat from Minnesota that his political mentor, Hubert H. Humphrey, had given up to become President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Mondale rose in the party hierarchy while establishing a reputation as a diligent legislator and a champion of such liberal causes as open housing and anti-poverty programs. His star ascended still further in 1976 when Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor and Democratic nominee for president, chose him as his running mate.

That November, Carter and Mondale — aided no doubt by the lingering shadow of the Watergate political scandal over the GOP — narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). But four years later — weighed down by an oil crisis and the Iranian hostage crisis — the Carter-Mondale ticket lost the White House to Reagan and his running mate, George H.W. Bush, in the 1980 election.

Mr. Mondale was back in 1984, running this time at the top of the Democratic ticket, but he lost to Reagan in spectacular fashion.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Mondale is, perhaps, best remembered for his startling promise at the Democratic National Convention to attack the budget deficit by raising taxes and for his choosing a female running mate: Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York, who became the first woman to run on a major-party presidential ticket.

A tax increase was unavoidable, he reasoned, and voters needed to be told the truth.

“By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds,” he declared during his acceptance speech. “Let’s tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

As for having a woman on the ticket, he deemed it long overdue.

Neither his frankness about fiscal matters nor his progressive stand on women’s place in national politics appears to have done him much good. The former made it easier for Republicans to label him a tax-and-spend Democrat; the latter failed to bring a majority of women to his side or even to put a significant dent in women’s support for Reagan.

After the election, Mr. Mondale acknowledged another problem. He lacked the charisma needed to sell his candidacy on television. And he was competing against Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and California governor who was a master of the medium. “I told the truth,” Mr. Mondale said in an interview with The Washington Post. “While my opponent was handing out rose petals, I was handing out coal. . . . I did not communicate hope and opportunity. . . . I’m not trying to excuse what happened in 1984 on the basis of television technique, even though I think Reagan’s a genius and I’m not very good at it.”

In the landslide of 1984, Reagan received more than 54.45 million votes, or almost 58.8 percent of the popular vote, to Mr. Mondale’s 37.57 million, or 40.6 percent. The tally in the electoral college was even more decisive, with Mr. Mondale winning only Minnesota and the District of Columbia — for a total of 13 electoral votes to Reagan’s record-high 525. And Mr. Mondale carried his home state by fewer than 4,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.

Afterward, Mr. Mondale returned to private law practice in Minnesota, but he reentered public life in 1993 when President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Japan. He served in Tokyo until December 1996, when he went home to Minnesota again, saying he had ended his political career.

North country youth

Walter Frederick Mondale, known as “Fritz,” was born on Jan. 5, 1928, in Ceylon, Minn., where Norwegian ancestors had settled in the mid-19th century. His father, Theodore, was a poor farmer who had become a Methodist clergyman, and his mother, the former Claribel Hope, was a part-time music teacher.

As a child, the future vice president moved with his family from one small pastorate to another, settling in Elmore, Minn., in 1937. During the Depression years of his boyhood, he sold vegetables door-to-door. As a teenager, he sang at weddings, and he was a standout athlete in football, basketball and track at Elmore High School.

Winters in the country towns and villages of his boyhood were desolate and lonely, and the Scandinavian culture pervasive. It was a culture that left a lasting imprint on the young Mr. Mondale, who learned the value of restraint and self-control. Years later, as a nationally known politician, he would recall only two acts that during his growing-up years were certain to result in a whipping: lying and boasting.

The reserved youth grew into a low-key politician, never much good as a backslapper or a special pleader. He hated plastic smiles, and he was uncomfortable using the personal pronoun “I.” When he was appointed attorney general of Minnesota, at age 32, he told his friends that he did not plan to be seen smiling for at least a year. To avoid small talk with members of his staff, he usually entered his office through a private side door. He was sometimes accused of being boring.

In 1948, as a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, he began his long association with Humphrey, who was then the mayor of Minneapolis. That was the year Humphrey unseated Republican U.S. Sen. Joseph Ball, and Mr. Mondale worked hard in Humphrey’s campaign. One of the proudest moments of his young life came during that race when he was able to introduce his 72-year-old father to Humphrey, a figure the elder Mondale admired greatly.

The next year, Theodore Mondale died. Mr. Mondale left college for a year and accompanied Humphrey to Washington, where he served as executive secretary of Students for Democratic Action. Then, he went home and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1951.

After two years in the Army, he entered law school at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill. He graduated in 1956 in the top quarter of his class. A year earlier, he married Joan Adams, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

She died in 2014, three years after their daughter, Eleanor Mondale Poling, a onetime radio and TV personality, died of brain cancer. Survivors include two sons, Ted Mondale and William Mondale, both of the Twin Cities area; a brother; and six grandchildren.

While still an undergraduate, Mr. Mondale managed the 1950 campaign of Orville Freeman for Minnesota attorney general. Freeman lost the election, but the relationship would prove important to Mr. Mondale’s political career.

In 1958, he worked on Freeman’s successful campaign for a third two-year term as governor. The governor rewarded Mr. Mondale with an appointment as special assistant to the attorney general of Minnesota. And in 1960, when the attorney general resigned, Mr. Mondale was appointed to replace him. Later that year, Mr. Mondale won election as attorney general in his own right.

In 1963, he received national attention for his support of Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida convict who had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that indigent defendants in state courts had the right to free legal counsel. At Mr. Mondale’s urging, the attorneys general of 23 states supported Gideon, who won his case, establishing an important legal principle extending the right of legal representation to criminal defendants charged with state-level felonies.

As Minnesota’s attorney general, Mr. Mondale also led a well-publicized investigation into financial irregularities at the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation, which led to fraud convictions, the liquidation of the foundation and the passage of laws regulating the solicitation of donations by charities.

On Humphrey’s election as vice president in 1964, Minnesota Gov. Karl F. Rolvaag appointed Mr. Mondale to the Senate. Two years later, Minnesota voters returned him to the seat by a comfortable margin.

'Grits and Fritz'

In his early years on Capitol Hill, Mr. Mondale was appropriately deferential to the leaders of the Senate. He supported the Johnson administration’s Great Society programs. After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the inner-city riots that ensued, he took to the Senate floor to argue in favor of the open-housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He supported the administration’s prosecution of the war in Vietnam, though he later came out against U.S. involvement in the conflict.

In 1972, Mr. Mondale won his second full term in the Senate, taking 56.7 percent of the vote. Two years later, he toyed with the idea of a 1976 presidential bid, but he took himself out of contention, declaring that he lacked an “overwhelming desire to be president.” This prompted Humphrey to ask aloud whether his protege had the “fire in his belly” required for the nation’s highest office, a remark that would dog Mr. Mondale later in his career.

What’s important to remember about Mr. Mondale, Humphrey often said, “is that he’s nonabrasive. He was not a polarizer. He coupled all this with what was obvious talent: He was young, he was articulate, he was intelligent and clean-cut.”

In 1975, Mr. Mondale led a Senate fight to make it easier to cut off filibusters. But he agreed to a compromise offered by Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) that many of his liberal colleagues found disappointingly watered-down.

As a vice-presidential candidate in 1976, he campaigned enthusiastically for the “Grits and Fritz” ticket with Southerner Carter, and he displayed a plucky side in his one debate with Dole, the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Dole had proclaimed, “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be . . . enough to fill the city of Detroit.”

In response, Mr. Mondale memorably snapped back, “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight, by implying, and stating, that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars. Does he really mean to suggest to the American people that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the war to fight Nazi Germany? I don’t think any reasonable American would accept that. Does he really mean to suggest that it was only partisanship that got us into the war in Korea?”

Political analysts said Mr. Mondale’s presence on the ticket was crucial to Carter’s victory in several key Northern states.

For Carter, he was a loyal and effective vice president, undertaking special overseas missions on behalf of the president, participating in high-level White House meetings. Among other functions, he served as a presidential sounding board, once disagreeing with Carter on a speech on national malaise. Mr. Mondale thought it was nonsense.

After the 1980 loss to Reagan and Bush, Mr. Mondale went back to practicing law, and he was a visiting professor at three universities in Minnesota. But he spent most of his time running for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.

In the 1982 elections, he campaigned on behalf of Democratic candidates in 95 U.S. House elections, 15 Senate elections and 18 gubernatorial elections. In 1983, he estimated that he was on the road campaigning three weeks out of four. He won the Democratic nomination handily — turning back a challenge by Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado with the help of a ready-made retort, “Where’s the beef?,” borrowed from a popular fast-food commercial — only to be trounced by Reagan in November.

Later, as ambassador in Tokyo, Mr. Mondale was known as “Omono,” or Big Cheese, and he was popular with the Japanese news media, government officials and the public. He signed several trade agreements and fought to improve access to Japanese markets for American products. But he left Tokyo disappointed that he had failed to achieve a major breakthrough on trade.

Returning to Minnesota in December 1996, he rejoined his old law firm, Dorsey and Whitney, in Minneapolis.

In 2002, Mr. Mondale was drafted into one more campaign, for him a sad last hurrah. He agreed to run for his former Senate seat after the incumbent, Democrat Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash within a couple of weeks of the election. He was narrowly defeated by Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and a former Democrat.

Years later, in an interview with the University of Minnesota Foundation, he begged off reflecting on his legacy. “Well, you know, Minnesota doesn’t believe much in bragging. I did the best I could.”

Read more:

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