Mondale carved out giant legacy, mentored future leaders

A man with glasses and gray hair smiles.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale listens to speakers during a dedication ceremony on Oct. 15, 2019 at William O'Brien State Park in Marine on Saint Croix, Minn. Five facilities, including the park's day use area, a section of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, several nearby park pavilions and river landings, were renamed for Mondale.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Updated: 3:28 p.m.

Amy Klobuchar thought her college internship back in the 1970s in the office of then-Vice President Walter Mondale would revolve around writing policy papers. She soon found herself taking inventory of the office furniture.

“I had to literally crawl under every lamp desk and chair and write the serial numbers down. I learned two things: One, he was scrupulously honest and two, as I tell students — always, always do well with your job even if they’re not what you think,” said Klobuchar, now in her 15th year as a U.S. senator. “Because he gave me my first job in Washington and this, thanks to him, was my second.”

That menial start would develop into a decades-long bond between Klobuchar and Mondale,  whose Senate careers for both also preceded unsuccessful runs for the presidency. Klobuchar chuckled this past week as she thought back on her intern days but was adamant about the valuable mentorship of Mondale, who died Monday night at age 93.

His seven decades in political life included an understated legacy: The cultivation of generations of Minnesota Democratic leaders. Scores of future politicians — a governor, top legislators, a state Supreme Court justice among them — found their calling as interns, aides and coffee runners in Mondale’s offices.

Walter Mondale
Former Vice President Walter Mondale (center) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. (right) are seen after announcing their presidential nominee during the roll call of states on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 27, 2008.
Charlie Neibergall | AP 2008

Klobuchar said Mondale, who kept an active interest in the careers of young aides long after they’d moved on, cared as much about how those he mentored carried themselves as what they stood for.

“He really taught us not just how to lead but what we do when we don’t get everything we want in life, and what kind of role models you are. And not everyone in this country got to see that,” she said. “We did.”

Mondale was a preacher’s son from a tiny town in southern Minnesota. He went on to carve out a giant legacy as a former Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president and ambassador to Japan. 

A look back on Minnesota political legend Walter Mondale's life and career
by Matt Sepic | MPR News

His life, filled with many triumphs, also was marked by a colossal defeat: Mondale suffered one of the worst presidential losses as the 1984 Democratic nominee. Through it all, he was regarded as a steadily positive and tireless figure.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs forged a close relationship with Mondale through the retired politician’s work with students and participation in symposiums at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jacobs reveled in the chance to hear stories from Mondale’s past. He said Mondale set the standard for modern vice presidents.

“Beginning with Walter Mondale and President Jimmy Carter, they transformed the office into a meaningful policymaker,” Jacobs said. “Never co-president but always working closely with the president.”

During his long career, Mondale championed civil rights and women’s rights. He was the first major-party nominee to put a woman on his ticket when he selected Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. And he had a fondness for environmental protection, from scenic rivers to the Boundary Waters.

So it was fitting a couple years ago that Mondale’s name was attached to a St. Croix River recreation area, the type of honor usually not done until after death.

Three men unveil a wooden sign.
From left, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Gov. Tim Walz unveil a sign for the Walter F. Mondale Day Use Area during a dedication ceremony on Oct. 15, 2019 at William O'Brien State Park in Marine on Saint Croix, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Surrounded by a cadre of admirers talking about all Mondale gave the state, he wistfully reflected on all it gave him.

“You know, I’ve been very lucky to live a good long life. I’m 91 and going. I had all those years together with Humphrey, Gaylord (Nelson) and spent almost 60 years in public life representing Minnesota,” he said, seated by a crackling fire in a picnic shelter on the brisk fall day. “And I loved every second of it.”

Mondale paused to soak it in.

“And I still think of it in joyous terms and as I look around the room I realize why,” Mondale continued. “We did a lot of things together. We shaped a state together.”

Mark Dayton, a former U.S. senator and governor, was on Mondale’s Senate staff and then helped out when he was tapped as Carter’s running mate. Dayton said even as Mondale rose to prominence, he maintained the humility of that small-town upbringing — taking his purpose more seriously than himself.

“So much respect so many people had for him because he had such integrity, such intelligence and high work ethic,” Dayton said this week. “He’s just everything you would want in a political leader — and a great role model for myself and Amy and others who would learn from him.”

Mondale, Dayton
Former U.S. Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale with future Senator Mark Dayton during Dayton's Senate campaign in 1982.

Dayton said one thing that will stick with him was when Mondale took the place of Paul Wellstone on the ballot after the senator died in a plane crash within weeks of the 2002 election. It was a close race, but Mondale lost.

“And he just handled himself with the most incredible dignity. To go back and look at the news conference he held the morning after he lost — I mean, to have withstood what he did, stepped in when he did under the circumstances,” Dayton said.

Republican Norm Coleman was the winner and remembers the gracious call he got from Mondale in the early hours the day after the election. He said Mondale told him being a Minnesota senator would be Coleman’s highest honor in life.   

“I admired him from afar,” Coleman said. “I admired him when I had the chance to be up close and I continue to have the greatest respect for what he represented, which was the best in politics even though we may have disagreed, really disagreed from certain policy perspectives.”

Then-Senate candidates Norm Coleman (left) and former Vice President Walter Mondale (right) take part in a 2002 debate moderated by MPR's Gary Eichten (second from left) and KARE 11's Paul Magers.
MPR 2002

They would sometimes cross paths at the airport as one or the other or both commuted between Minnesota and Washington. They’d share genial moments.

“I only always had a warm place in my heart for him,” Coleman said. “It’s a shame in politics today that people on opposite sides of the aisle seem unable to get along.”

Mondale’s defeat in that abbreviated 2002 contest was his only Minnesota loss, but the 50th state he would lose over a political lifetime due to his presidential race drubbing.

In public that day after the election, Mondale stood on stage surrounded by his wife, Joan, and other members of his family. Mondale accepted the voters’ judgment unequivocally.

“I love this state. I love Minnesotans. In what is obviously the end of my last campaign, I want to say to Minnesotans: You always treated me decently. You always listened to me. You always did what really wonderful citizens do,” he said. “And now you made your decision. We respect it."

And Mondale assured he would walk away with his head up.

“As for me and Joan and the others, I have no regrets.” 

Public memorial services for Mondale won’t be held until September, in part because of the COVID-19 precautions around large gatherings. The family says in a statement that plans are in the works for services in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C. Details will be released in the coming months.

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