The position of vice president is often one that is derided and mocked for its lack of institutional power. The nation’s first vice president, John Adams, once said of the post that it was “…the most insignificant office that invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived” (Fuller). FDR’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, was more crass about it. According to his biographer, former Congressman O.C. Fisher of Texas, he stated that it wasn’t worth a “warm bucket of piss”, which was cleaned up by the press of the time as “a bucket of warm spit” (Hill). Despite this, there have been a few vice presidents who never became president yet proved significant in their offices. Among these were Garret Hobart (McKinley’s first), Henry Wallace (FDR’s second), Dick Cheney, and Walter Frederick “Fritz” Mondale (1928-2021).
Fritz Mondale (he went by “Fritz”) stands with Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy as giants in the rise of the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party to power in Minnesota. A prominent and politically active attorney, Governor Orville Freeman appointed him attorney general in 1960, with him being elected to a full term in 1962. Political opportunities opened quickly for the young Mondale, and in 1964 he was appointed by Governor Karl Rolvaag to the Senate to succeed Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president.
As senator, he was a strong supporter of the Great Society and civil rights and took the lead on advocating fair housing legislation. Mondale was also a strong supporter of federal funding of the arts, which had a personal element as his wife, Joan, was herself an artist, known affectionately as “Joan of Art”. He was elected to a full term in 1966 in what was a good year for Republicans. In 1968, Mondale was critical in working out a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) to include fair housing in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
In the 1970s, Mondale led pushes for universal daycare and successfully worked with Sen. James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) in 1975 to reduce the requirement to end a filibuster from 2/3’s of senators to 3/5’s. He was very strong in his liberalism: his MC-Index score is a 1%. In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked Mondale as VP to balance out the ticket, as Carter was from the Deep South and thought of as in the moderate camp of the Democratic Party while Mondale represented the staunch liberals of the North. The Carter/Mondale ticket prevailed.
A Game Changing Vice President
Although Jimmy Carter is widely thought of as a weak president, Walter Mondale by contrast is thought of as one of the strongest vice presidents in American history. Rather than be an outside figure like many other VPs, Mondale actively participated in the presidency and held regular meetings with Carter. Mondale’s chief of staff, Richard Moe, noted that “He had unprecedented access to the president” (Hunt). He repeatedly pushed Carter more to the left, including urging him to keep up social spending and persuading him to support affirmative action in university admissions. Mondale also warned Carter against delivering the “Crisis of Confidence” speech, telling him, “You can’t castigate the American people, or they will turn you off once and for all” (Hayward). This speech would be more commonly known as the “Malaise speech”, delivered on July 15, 1979, which criticized the American people for a “crisis of confidence” as well as their lifestyles as overconsumption. While Carter got a lot of positive mail and a bump in popularity after the speech initially, criticism of the speech grew within days, with Carter’s critics holding that he was deflecting blame to the American people for his own policy failures (Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy would call it the “malaise speech”) and that he was engaging in blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, when Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had critiqued American materialism and a spiritual crisis in the West in his 1978 Harvard commencement address, the First Lady criticized the speech, which was widely understood as the unofficial response of the Carter Administration. Worse yet, two days after delivering the speech, Carter asked for resignation letters from all his cabinet officers to review which ones he would accept. Mondale turned out to be right, and this marked the beginning of the end of the Carter presidency as the malaise narrative stuck throughout the 1980 election. After Carter’s defeat that year, Mondale would be de facto head of the party.
Mondale for President
Mondale saw 1984 as his time to run for the Democratic nomination for president. His most formidable rival was Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who was ambitious in promoting new ideas for the Democratic Party and gaining a lot of attention among younger voters. However, Mondale was able to effectively attack his ideas as shallow in the primary debates, asking Hart, “Where’s the beef?”, based on a popular Wendy’s commercial of the time (Gannon). Hart’s campaign had suffered a mortal blow and Mondale won the nomination.
In 1984, Mondale was nominated to run for president against Ronald Reagan. He again made history when he selected Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, but this history-making choice was marred by questions over Ferraro’s record on ethics in the House as well as questions surrounding her husband’s finances and business connections. Although Reagan stumbled in his first debate performance against Mondale, he came back in spades in the second performance. When asked about his age, Reagan successfully deflected, “…I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience”, getting the laughter of the audience and of Mondale himself (Glass). Mondale reflected on the debate afterwards in an interview with Jim Lehrer, “If TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you’ll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you’ll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think. [I told my wife] the campaign was over, and it was” (PBS). He had also blundered earlier on the campaign when he stated at the Democratic National Convention, “By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two-thirds. 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” (CNN). The combination of a personally popular president, Mondale’s staunchly liberal platform of a nuclear freeze, support for the Equal Rights Amendment, tax increases with expansions of social programs, and a rapidly recovering economy produced one of the greatest electoral landslides in American history. Mondale only barely won his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. He subsequently reflected on his loss, “Reagan was promising them ‘morning in America,’ and I was promising a root canal” (U.S. Senate).
In 1993, Mondale was tapped by President Clinton as Ambassador to Japan, a post he served in until 1996. Six years later, he was quickly drafted to run for the Senate once again after the death of Paul Wellstone in a plane crash on October 25, 2002 but was narrowly defeated by Saint Paul Mayor Norm Coleman in an upset. Had Mondale had more time to campaign, it seems likely he would have won. After this loss, he retired from politics for good. He suffered two losses in his retirement, the passing of his daughter Eleanor in 2011 from brain cancer and the passing of his wife in 2014 from Alzheimer’s disease. Mondale announced his support for Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic primary for the 2020 election and endorsed Joe Biden after he was nominated.
On April 18th, 2021, death was imminent for Mondale, so he wrote a final farewell to all who had worked for him in the past:
Well my time has come. I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I Go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side!
Together we have accomplished so much and I know you will keep up the good fight.
Joe in the White House certainly helps.
I always knew it would be okay if I arrived some place and was greeted by one of you!
My best to all of you!
Mondale died in his sleep the next day.
1984: There You Go Again…Again: Debating Our Destiny Transcript. PBS.
DeMarche, E. (2021, April 19). Mondale pens touching letter to team prior to his death. Fox News.
Fuller, J. (2014, October 3). Here are a bunch of awful things vice presidents have said about being No. 2. The Washington Post.
Gannon, F. (2005, August). Where’s the beef? EMBO Reports, 6(8).
Glass, A. (2018, October 21). Reagan recovers in second debate, Oct. 21, 1984. Politico.
Hayward, S.F. (2009, July 20). Make Mine Malaise. The Washington Times.
Hill, R. (2014, October 12). Cactus Jack: John Nance Garner of Texas. Knoxville Focus.
Hunt, A. (2021, April 20). Walter Mondale was our first consequential vice president. The Hill.
Mondale’s Acceptance Speech, 1984. CNN.
Smith, T. (1979, July 18). Carter Offered Resignations By Cabinet and Senior Staff; Some Going in Days, Aides Say. The New York Times.
Walter F. Mondale, 42nd Vice President (1977-1981). U.S. Senate.