It was Mondale’s political misfortune to run against Reagan. After weathering a deep recession, Reagan sought reelection during a time of rising economic growth and personal popularity. As his most famous campaign ad claimed, it was “morning in America.” Mondale suffered one of the biggest electoral college loss of any candidate in history, losing 49 states and carrying only his home state of Minnesota — and that by only 4,000 votes. It was, as he would later recall, “a helluva shellacking.”
But that was hardly the summation of a rich life in politics and public service. Mondale’s legacy goes much deeper than that crushing defeat, most notably his contributions to the office of the vice presidency. Every vice president who has served since owes him a debt of gratitude for turning the role into something of value.
Mondale, who died Monday at age 93, was born in tiny Ceylon, Minn., near the Iowa border, and grew up in nearby — and also tiny — Elmore, Minn. His father was a Methodist minister; his mother taught piano. Mondale’s personality reflected his small-town upbringing and the Scandinavian reserve of his Norwegian heritage.
Politically, he was a product of the Midwestern progressivism embodied in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He was a young ally of Hubert H. Humphrey (who also served as vice president and who also lost a presidential race, to Richard M. Nixon in 1968), working on Humphrey’s campaign for Senate in 1948 and later running campaigns as a young lawyer. He was lucky enough to be in the right places as political opportunities presented themselves.
He was appointed and later elected as Minnesota’s attorney general and in 1964 was appointed to fill Humphrey’s Senate seat when Lyndon B. Johnson tapped Humphrey as his running mate. In the Senate, he was a liberal, pro-labor, New Deal Democrat and a reliable supporter of Johnson’s Great Society legislation. Over time, as he was elected and reelected, his influence within the chamber expanded, as he played roles on social welfare legislation, budgetary reforms and cleanup of intelligence failures.
He was an old-school politician, and when he ran for president, the art of political communication was undergoing a transformation, shaped more and more by the power of television. Mondale recognized his limits and Reagan’s skills. He once described Reagan as “a genius” at the use of television and said of himself, “I’m not very good at it.”
He was especially struck by Reagan’s adroit exploitation of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, a national feel-good moment that played directly into the incumbent’s campaign themes. “I’m the guy grinding away on civil rights and women’s rights,” Mondale said. “He’s the guy taking the flag from me. . . . He handled that, and I just wasn’t in that ballgame.”
But it was the vice presidency where he left a lasting mark, though he didn’t seem to want to be considered for the job when the time came. This was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter had wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination. Dick Moe, Mondale’s longtime confidant, kept urging his boss to get into the competition. Mondale wanted nothing to do with it. He said he wanted to stay in the Senate.
An exasperated Moe finally insisted that Mondale sit down with Humphrey, whose time as Johnson’s vice president had been marked by disappointment and humiliation. The three met for lunch in the Senate dining room on a hot, late-spring afternoon.
Moe recalled that Mondale repeated to Humphrey what he had been saying to Moe, that he didn’t want to be considered, that he was happy in the Senate. Humphrey said, addressing Mondale by his nickname: “Enough of that, Fritz. For all the crap I took from Lyndon Johnson, it was the best job I ever had.” Moe said he could see Mondale’s eyes widening, and after the lunch, Mondale was in pursuit of the job.
Up to that time, the vice presidency was a position of limited importance and enormous frustration. John Nance Garner once described it as not worth a bucket of spit — using language that was far more colorful. Those who served as vice president were never part of presidential inner circles, and their responsibilities were peripheral to nonexistent.
Two vice presidents just prior to Mondale had left the office at a low point. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, had resigned in disgrace. Nelson Rockefeller, tapped by Gerald Ford, who became president when the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office, was dumped from the ticket in 1976.
Mondale did not have a full vision for a reimagined vice presidency when he was selected by Carter, but Carter was already thinking about how to turn the office into something useful. “Jimmy Carter was way ahead of everybody else because he had thought about the vice presidency,” Moe said.
Carter saw the office as a wasted asset; his views also were shaped by the knowledge that when Harry S. Truman became president after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he knew nothing of the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb. Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law who has written extensively about the vice presidency, said Carter thought what Roosevelt did to Truman was “immoral,” adding, “Carter [was] disposed to having a vice president there to help him.”
Still, it took Mondale to provide the blueprint for what became the modern vice presidency. A month after they were elected, Carter and Mondale met at Blair House to discuss the office in more detail. By now, Mondale was prepared with a vision of how he hoped the relationship would work.
Unlike some of his recent predecessors, he did not want specific responsibilities. He saw those as traps that had encumbered and ultimately frustrated previous occupants of the office. “He said to Carter, ‘My political future is going to be tied to the success of your administration,’ ” Goldstein said. “ ‘And so I want to help you succeed. And the way I can do it is by being an across-the-board adviser and taking on high-level assignments.’ And that’s really what they did.”
“Mondale realized that he needed to have certain resources, and he had access to Carter,” Goldstein said. “He had to have known what Carter was hearing. He had to know what Carter knew. He had to be involved in meetings. He had to have his staff involved in meetings.”
In the Blair House meeting, Moe recalled, Mondale said he would like to have access to all meetings involving the president. Equally important, he asked to see all the same paperwork that flowed through the Oval Office, something that had never been done. He wanted to take on important troubleshooting assignments, and he wanted to have regular, one-on-one meetings with the president, where he would be free to offer advice and disagreement when necessary.
At the end of the meeting, Carter asked Mondale to put his ideas into a memo. Two days later it was sent to the president-elect, who accepted everything in it. But Carter went further. He told Cabinet officers to treat any request from the vice president as if it had come from the president. He also provided Mondale an office in the West Wing along the corridor with the chief of staff and the national security adviser.
Mondale made one other contribution to the office. This was in 1984, when he was the Democratic nominee and preparing to select his own running mate. That summer, he interviewed a procession of candidates who were at the time nontraditional contenders.
They included two Black mayors, a Hispanic mayor and three women. He tentatively settled on Dianne Feinstein, now a senator and then mayor of San Francisco, but later changed his mind and tapped then-representative Geraldine Ferraro. That process opened doors that have remained open ever since. In 2020, it found fulfillment with the election of Vice President Harris as President Biden’s running mate.