The news that Walter Mondale was in extremis had circulated a few days ago, and blurted out, predictably, by Jimmy Carter, about whom Mondale said on many occasions after 1980, “I never understood how Carter’s political mind worked. Carter’s got the coldest political nose of any politician I ever met.”
It is still not well known that Mondale considered resigning as Vice President during Carter’s infamous navel-gazing Camp David retreat in July 1979 that gave us the awful “malaise” speech. Mondale was conventional enough to know Carter had lost his grip.
Mondale was, to be sure, an old New Deal/Great Society liberal, and it is easy to arrange a catalogue of things he was wrong about. In 1971 Mondale said that “The sickening truth is that this country is rapidly coming to resemble South Africa,” which is ridiculous, but would fit in well today with the required Black Lives Matter slogans. But in other respects he was a moderate, and in person said to be charming and with a great sense of humor. Like Al Gore, electronic media was not kind to him. Robert Bartley, the legendary editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page who knew Mondale personally from serving with him on the board of the Mayo Clinic, wrote: “The great mystery of the man is how and why he contrived to keep his personal wit and humor, readily apparent in even short conversation as vice president, from showing itself on the campaign trail.”
One of the more interesting stories of Mondale is how he invited a number of the prominent “neoconservative” Democrats to meet with Carter at the White House in January 1980 after Carter had indicated he wanted to be tougher on the Soviet Union, and when many Dem neocons were still longing to be loyal to their old party. The meeting was a total disaster, because Carter was clueless. And Mondale knew it.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was in the group, along with Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Ben Wattenberg, Elliott Abrams, Max Kampelman, retired admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Austin Ranney, and Penn Kemble. Perhaps, the group told Carter, he would now include some of this group in his administration, having spurned them before. Austin Ranney, speaking for the group, told Carter that they were encouraged by the change in Carter’s view of the Soviet Union, and hoped he would now appoint officials who were in harmony with a tougher policy.
Carter cut off Ranney: “Your analysis is not true. There has been no change in my policy. I have always held a consistent view of the Soviet Union. For the record, I did not say that I have learned more about the Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan, as is alleged in the press. My policy is my policy. It has not changed, and will not change.” Admiral Zumwalt told Carter that existing U.S. navy forces were incapable of defending the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean oil routes. Carter responded with what was described as “a stare that in a less democratic society would’ve meant he was destined for a firing squad.” Maybe, Carter went on to suggest when the topic moved on to human rights, this group could help with human rights in Uruguay. The meeting was the last straw for these “neoconservative” Democrats, despite Mondale’s efforts to repair the damage.
Mondale knew the meeting had been a disaster, and asked the group to stay after Carter left. It was to no avail. Carter, Jeane Kirkpatrick told Morton Kondrake after the meeting, “threw cold water on whatever hopes we had that Iran and Afghanistan would have a broad effect on the president’s foreign policy orientation.” Kirkpatrick announced on the White House lawn after the meeting that she now intended to vote for Reagan.
Watching the Biden Administration now, it is not hard to long for the kind of liberalism Mondale represented, for all of its flaws. He’d have been a much better president than Biden. Or Obama.
I hope John and Scott will weigh in on this great Minnesotan, but for now: RIP.