A personal note on Walter Mondale

Former Vice President Walter Mondale died on Monday at the age of 93. His death brought back a flood of memories to me. I want to offer these personal notes on the occasion of his death.

I talked my way into an internship in then Minnesota Senator Mondale’s Washington office in the summer of 1969, just after I graduated from high school in St. Paul. I had gone to hear Mondale speak at an event that spring and tracked him down outside the building afterwards. I told Mondale that Syd Berde, his former chief deputy when he served as Minnesota Attorney General, had called him and recommended me to him. That’s what I had been given to understand, although I’m not sure it was accurate. (Mr. Berde was the father of my classmate Chuck Berde, by far the smartest student in our class. Chuck told me that his father had called Mondale on my behalf, as I had requested.)

However, Mondale didn’t disagree. It didn’t take more than a mention of Mr. Berde for Mondale to tell me to call Mike Berman, the manager of his office in Washington. I called Mike and arranged a start-up date.

Working for Mondale that summer was a life-changing experience. I found him to be a decent, honest, and surprisingly candid boss. He had me performing the traditional functions of an intern at the time. During my first day on the job, Mike asked me to go to the vendor outside the Senate Office Building and buy rum-soaked crooks for Mondale. It’s a cigar I haven’t heard of before or since.

Mondale kept a so-called first-name file of friends and supporters under Mike’s jurisdiction. When letters came in with the salutation “Dear Fritz,” we had to check them against the file and make sure that responses were not signed with the office autopen. My job was to sign them “Fritz,” in Mondale’s cursive style. I got pretty good at it, too.

I enjoyed it all. According to Hegel’s famous adage, “No man is a hero to his valet. This is not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.” These may be the only two sentences by Hegel that I think I understand. Although I had a valet’s perspective on Mondale, and although my politics have changed considerably since that summer, I have nothing but good to say about him as a man.

Mondale came up in the Minnesota DFL as a protégé of Hubert Humphrey. Indeed, as a precocious young man, Mondale served as a Young DFL anti-Communist organizer in Humphrey’s struggle to throw the Communists out of the DFL. See John Earl Haynes’s invaluable Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party (1984). Mister, we could use a man like the young Walter Mondale again.

Back in 1969, the Senate committees held real hearings and exchanges of substance took place on the Senate floor. With Mondale’s encouragement, I played hooky on occasion to take them in. One day I was surprised to see Louisiana Senator Russell Long mercilessly interrogating Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire on Proxmire’s criticism of the oil depletion allowance on the Senate floor. I thought Long may have had the better of the argument but was surprised at how bitter and unrelenting he was. When I asked Mondale about it, Mondale simply observed: “Russell was drunk.”

During his service as vice president Mondale attended the official opening of the new University of Minnesota Law School building on the west bank of the campus in January 1978, I think. I was a second-year student and a member of the law school student council at the time. I somehow snagged the honor of greeting him with his Secret Service contingent when he arrived.

The following year the council solicited items for a fund-raising auction. Mondale had made his name in part as an ardent advocate of campaign-finance “reform,” but he contributed an autographed copy of his January 1956 Minnesota Law Review note opposing Minnesota’s then current campaign finance reform law (“Minnesota Corrupt Practices Act: A Critique of the Fixed Campaign Expenditure Limitations”). It is an intelligent and insightful piece that remains relevant to the larger issues and seemed to me, given his about-face on the subject, a characteristically humorous contribution to the auction. (I’m the proud owner.) In May 2001 the law school building was named Walter F. Mondale Hall in his honor.

After Mondale’s last public service, as ambassador to Japan in the Clinton administration, he returned to the Twin Cities to work at the Dorsey and Whitney law firm. Although he sought unsuccessfully to return to his old job as Senator after Paul Wellstone’s death in 2002, he wasn’t wedded to Washington. He had a life and family in Minneapolis.

Our paths crossed occasionally in the downtown Minneapolis skyway. He would always take the time to stop and chat with me in his candid style. I asked him during one such chat about Steven Gillon’s The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter F. Mondale and the Liberal Legacy (1992). Mondale had arranged for Gillon to have unconditional access to archives and former staffers to facilitate his work on the book.

The book reflected a liberal’s disillusion with aspects of Mondale’s career, and Mondale was disappointed by it in turn, but he was a big boy who never lost his gift for self-deprecation. Gillon relates that when he first approached Mondale in 1986 about his desire to write the book, Mondale asked him, “Who would want to read a book about me?”

Gillon responded that Mondale’s career served as a prism for viewing recent American politics (recent as of 1986). Mondale laconically commented: “So maybe Lane Kirkland will buy a copy.” Lane Kirkland and me, I guess. Mondale to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s a valuable book about a politician of rare grace and integrity.

When my youngest daughter graduated from college in 2015, we went to dinner with the family of her boyfriend (now fiancée). Former Ambassador to Rumania (1994-1997) Alfred Moses is his grandfather. In the Carter White House he served as special counsel and special advisor to Carter as well as lead counsel to Carter in the Billygate hearings. I asked him whom he respected most among his colleagues in the Carter administration. He answered without hesitation: “Fritz Mondale.” RIP.

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