Mondale Reminisces

Our pal Stephen Knott of the Naval War College has pointed us to the release today by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia of his oral history interview with former Vice President Walter Mondale. There’s lots of interesting political history in this interview, but here are a few highlights, starting with Mondale’s first impressions of Robert and Ted Kennedy when they arrived in the Senate in the early 1960s:

[Bobby] wasn’t the huge presence, huge man that Ted was. Ted just filled a room—big smile, big face, big bulk. Bobby was diminutive by those measurements, sort of private and insular—a much-discussed part of his personality—and I would say moody. One day it would be a warm, fun conversation. The next day the shop was closed. He could be snippy, too. Teddy never showed that. He may have been that way, but I never saw it.

One interesting part of the interview is when Mondale describes the run-up to Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to Jimmy Carter:

Well, as you know, our administration kept losing public support. We had some problems that I think would have bedeviled any President, but we were there and we were the ones who paid the price. By ’78, the midterm conference in Memphis, in his famous “sail against the wind” speech, Teddy was starting to inhale it a little bit and the polls were showing, as your papers point out, a three-to-one advantage.

I think there was a heavy Camelot feeling in the Ted Kennedy community that after all this tragedy, after all these Kennedys had been cheated in this way, and the recollection of the Camelot rapture, that he had a duty to restore that fabled promised land. He was struggling within himself about whether to fulfill this desire, this goal, that was deep in him, deep in his friends. There were a lot of northern liberals around Kennedy who were critical of Carter and encouraging Kennedy to run, and that stuff started really setting in by ’78. I think that he was toying when he gave that—I heard him give the speech, the “sail against the wind” speech.

I’m an old liberal, but here we were with oil prices up, gas lines, with budget deficits that seem puny now but in the midst of inflation seemed disastrous, and here was Carter trying to do what I think any Democratic President would try to do at that time, do something to get these forces under control. And that included some kind of restraint over spending.

Along comes Ted Kennedy and he said, “Forget all of that, let’s sail against the wind.” Of course, the centerpiece of what he wanted to do was national health insurance—single payer, which, by anyone’s estimate, would add seventy, eighty, ninety billion dollars, maybe a hundred billion dollars, nobody knows, but there wasn’t a chance in hell that that was doable, and yet that’s what got proposed. I talked to Ted quite a bit during that time and I told him what you’re hearing from me now. . .

Knott: How would he respond, do you recall?

Mondale: He was doing what he was going to do and I kind of knew that, but I wasn’t going to let him roll over me. I wanted him to know there was a legitimate case on the other side. I was, at least on one occasion, very clear about the damage it was going to do to all of us, including him, if they pulled down Carter.

Knott: Could you tell us about that?

Mondale: He called me the day before he announced he was running and I said. “Ted, I’m very sorry to hear that. I’m sorry for us, of course, I’m sorry for you, but I’m really sorry for the Democratic Party and for what we believe in, because we don’t intend to leave voluntarily. We’re going to fight for this thing, and even though you and I will now say that this is going to be civil and pleasant on the issues, it never gets that way. I’ve been through it. It’s going to get mean as hell and we’re all going to be hurt in the process.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Here Mondale comes close to blaming Kennedy for Carter’s loss in 1980:

Knott: Were you surprised that Kennedy stayed with it for so long after defeat after defeat?

Mondale: Yes. If I were talking to Ted, that’s what I would say sticks in my craw right now. At some point it was clear before the convention that he was not going to be nominated, and I knew that if Carter were nominated he’d support us. If that’s where we’re going, we should have been able to work out a transition that would allow Carter to get in charge of that convention, look like a President again, put his money into the campaign against [Ronald] Reagan, and lay the groundwork for a possible re-election.

That’s not what Ted did. Ted kept plugging away long after it was clear he couldn’t make it and he got pretty rough with us. The convention was a flop because all the attention was on him, the Camelot legacy, his powerful speech at the convention, and then the way that Carter’s speech, the all-unity session on the platform, turned into a sour experience, and the press fully reported it. It ruined our national convention, and although Kennedy later came out for us and I appreciate that, the damage done was so bad that you couldn’t make up for it. . . I think the chances that we could possibly get back on our feet and defeat Reagan were dramatically diminished by that last three weeks leading up to the convention and the convention itself.

On underestimating Ronald Reagan:

Knott: Is it true, though, that there were some people around President Carter who were sort of looking forward to running against Ronald Reagan?

Mondale: Yeah. There was a story around that Reagan, because he had all these atrocious right-wing statements—he had opposed civil rights. He opposed every arms control agreement. It’s just a massive museum of idiotic, right-wing statements and we’re thinking, This is a great target. Wrong. People liked him.