Gary Eichten recorded his final interview as MPR's Midday host before a packed crowd at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul Thursday night - swapping jokes with former Vice President Walter Mondale, telling stories about his legendary interviews with former governor Jesse Ventura, and thanking his family and listeners.
The sold-out event marked the end of several weeks of celebrations for the beloved radio broadcaster, who is retiring this week after 45 years at MPR.
Eichten began by introducing his family - his daughter, "a remarkable woman who makes her dad very proud," his grandson, "a superstar," his son-in-a-law, "a heckuva guy," and his wife, Joann, "my darlin'." Eichten added, "As the song says, she's the angel who tops my tree."
He then sat down with Mondale for a wide-ranging interview on politics and the presidency. Mondale opened the interview by calling Eichten "one of the great newsmen in our history."
"Thank you, Mr. Mondale," Eichten replied. "But we're here to grill you."
Eichten asked Mondale to share his impressions of several decades-worth of U.S. presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy. Mondale, who worked as a campaign manager for Kennedy, called Kennedy "the inspiration" for his generation. Of his death, he said simply, "I don't think I'll ever get over it."
Lyndon Johnson was a "mixed figure," Mondale said, who helped the country move forward on issues of racial equality, but also led the nation further into the Vietnam War - a move, Mondale said, that "ruined his presidency."
Mondale called Nixon "a gifted man, brilliant" and said the Republican president "kind of looks like a moderate today." Mondale described his former boss, Jimmy Carter, as "brilliant and devoted to his country, with a desire to solve problems."
As for Ronald Reagan, Mondale said, "I was not impressed by the depth of some of his thinking. He imagined a lot of things to have happened that no one else remembered." Mondale ran against Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, and lost in a landslide.
Eichten reminded Mondale of a remark he once made comparing his campaign to Reagan's, calling it one of the best lines he's heard from a politician: "He was selling morning in America and I was selling a root canal."
Mondale's appraisal of George W. Bush was perhaps more nuanced that the crowd expected. Mondale described what he sees as "two George W. Bush administrations" - starting out with a president who appeared "cocky and didn't think things through," and ending with a president who, Mondale believes, began to realize he was listening to the wrong people in his administration and his party.
Mondale also turned the tables on Eichten and asked a few questions about his own career.
Eichten took the opportunity to tell a few of his favorite anecdotes - like the story of how his father never seemed to understand what his son did for a living. Eichten's father, a Mankato resident and rabid Twins fan, didn't know what to make of his son's radio career, he said.
When he got the chance to interview legendary Twins owner Calvin Griffith, Eichten thought he finally found a way to explain his career to his father.
"I said to my dad, 'I bet you'll never guess who I interviewed,'" he said. "'Calvin Griffith.'"
His father's reply came right away. "'What the hell did he want to talk to you for?'"
Eichten's appreciation of baseball was honored by a representative of the Minnesota Twins, who was on hand to give Eichten his own Twins jersey - bearing the number 45 for the number of years he spent behind the microphone. The Twins also invited Eichten to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
Eichten recalled the early days of his career working at the small station that would later become Minnesota Public Radio. "Nobody had any real expectations except for Bill Kling," Eichten recalled, referring to the founder of MPR. "The rest of us, we were just kids, trying to make a buck."
Kling wanted the radio station to be the best in the country, Eichten said, even though, Eichten added, at the time, "We couldn't even make the case that we were the best in Stearns County."
But Eichten said that goal stuck with him - and with Minnesota Public Radio. "The fundamental interest in what we're trying to achieve I don't think has changed one wit."
Eichten's one regret, he said, is that he never had the opportunity to interview a U.S. president - although, he joked, "Mr. Mondale came relatively close, plus or minus 49 states."
He said the most fascinating interviews he conducted were with Gov. Jesse Ventura, but they didn't always go smoothly. Eichten recalled how a caller from Crystal, Minn. got into a heated argument with the governor about his views on state funding for a new Twins stadium. The caller and the governor began shouting at each other on the air. Ventura took off his headphones and headed for the door.
"Now there's a lot of things that are wrong with that if you're a radio host," Eichten told the audience.
"I said, 'Governor, put your headphones on,'" he recalled. "And by golly, he put his headphones on."
In between the jokes and the banter, there were moments of reflection. Eichten looked to the floor and appeared to tear up when Mondale described the compliments Eichten received from the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission.
"You're one of the few people who started out at the beginning and you've been here all this way," Mondale said. "A heckuva job."
The night also featured some good news for Eichten fans - MPR CEO and President Jon McTaggart announced that Eichten will continue to be involved with MPR News coverage as the newsroom's "editor-at-large" and will host a new series of events and broadcasts at the Fitzgerald Theater this election season. That announcement was met with rousing applause and more than a few audible sighs of relief from the audience.
McTaggart also announced the creation of the Gary Eichten News Fellowship at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. The fellowship will allow two students, one from Eichten's alma mater, Saint John's, and one from the College of Saint Benedict, to receive journalism training in partnership with MPR News.
Eichten had some parting advice for young people considering a career in journalism.
"Go for it, absolutely. It's the best job in the world unless you can play center field for the Twins."
Video from the Fitzgerald Theater can be found below. MPR will broadcast the event at 11 a.m. At noon, MPR's Cathy Wurzer will interview Gary Eichten during 'Midday.'
Mondale looks back at Eichten's career:
Eichten reflects on his decades behind the microphone: