Though his long political career did not warrant such a disaster, Walter Mondale, who has died aged 93, gained an unwelcome place in American political history. In 1984, challenging the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan, he won only 13 of the nation’s 538 electoral college votes, the worst defeat ever suffered by a Democratic presidential candidate. Only Alfred Landon had put in a worse performance: his 1936 Republican campaign against Franklin Roosevelt foundered with a mere eight of 531 electoral votes.
Reagan’s performance in his televised debates with Mondale had revealed early signs of the former actor’s growing mental confusion, but he romped into his second term with 59% of the popular ballot and 525 electoral votes. Had Mondale not scraped a razor’s edge victory in his home state of Minnesota he would have become the nation’s all-time loser, winning only the three electoral votes of the irrepressibly Democratic District of Columbia.
What Mondale did achieve, in addition to his productive years in state politics and the Senate, was to significantly redefine the difficult post of vice-president. His working relationship with President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981 set a pattern that helped his successors find a more meaningful role.
As a presidential candidate, Mondale largely engineered his own defeat. Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate from a major party, but lost credibility when her family finances eventually came under scrutiny. In his acceptance speech to the Democratic nominating convention in San Francisco, Mondale assured its 4,000 startled delegates that: “Mr Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you: I just did.”
To a nation basking in the sunshine politics and tax reductions of Reagan’s first four years, Mondale’s declaration was seen as an appalling blunder. It certainly had its impact on Reagan’s vice-president, already planning his own assault on the White House. Mondale’s gaffe prompted George HW Bush’s infamous sound bite of 1988: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
The plain talking that scuppered Mondale had deep roots. Born in Ceylon, in rural southern Minnesota, he was the son of Theodore, a Methodist minister whose own grandfather, Frederick Mundal, had come from Norway, and Claribel (nee Cowan), a part-time music teacher. Theodore’s annual stipend could not support a family, so Walter Frederick – universally known as Fritz – sought odd jobs to boost the family’s finances. He delivered newspapers, served in a local grocery and worked in a nearby canning factory checking harvested peas for lice.
It was on this production line that his lifelong fascination with politics emerged. Jeopardising an already meagre contribution to the family income, he took part in a strike for better working conditions. His friends saw this increasing political involvement as a response to the excessive piety of his upbringing, though his parents imprinted their insistence on straight-dealing and absolute honesty.
Mondale became fascinated with his state’s Byzantine politics in his teenage years. Local Democrats had split between rightwing supporters of President Harry Truman and leftwingers backing the maverick Henry Wallace, who intended to run against Truman in 1948. Wallace’s refusal to condemn that February’s Communist coup in Czechoslovakia turned Mondale against him, and he volunteered to undertake political work for the mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey – an association that coloured Mondale’s political life.
From Macalester College, St Paul, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he gained a degree in political science (1951). After two years’ army service he qualified for a government-subsidised course, and returned to the university to take a law degree. In 1955 he married Joan Adams, and the following year started in private practice.
Since he had little interest in litigation, he immersed himself in Minnesota’s Democratic politics. At the age of 30 he was asked to manage the governor’s re-election campaign and, when Orville Freeman won by a thumping two-thirds majority, Mondale’s career prospects soared. Two years later, when the state’s attorney general unexpectedly retired, Freeman appointed Mondale to fill the post until the next election, making him the youngest person to hold that position in the US.
Skulduggery in a local charity fortuitously thrust the new attorney general into the headlines, and this publicity continued as he evolved into a relentless legal activist, particularly on issues of consumer protection. When he faced the voters in November 1960 they confirmed him in office. His rigorous approach to law enforcement made him one of the most influential politicians in Minnesota and later within the wider Democratic party, an influence reinforced by his next re-election campaign.
Mondale burst on to the national scene at the Democrats’ 1964 nominating convention through his adept handling of a serious rebellion by southern Democrats opposed to President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights platform. When Johnson then picked Humphrey, by now a senator for Minnesota, as his running mate, Mondale was designated by the state’s governor to complete Humphrey’s Senate term. The choice was vigorously confirmed by the electorate in 1966.
The complexities of the Johnson presidency soon coiled round Mondale. Over the years Humphrey had become his political mentor and idol, so the new senator arrived in Washington with a deep sense of loyalty towards his predecessor. Mondale had no problem supporting the administration’s civil rights reforms, but the widening war in Vietnam and its poisonous impact on domestic politics left him squirming.
As the chasm expanded in the Democratic party and in the country, Mondale havered. “Tragic and disheartening as this problem is,” he said to one antiwar group, “I still think our policy is better than any of the alternatives.” He later acknowledged that his stance had been the greatest mistake of his political career.
Meanwhile, he dodged round the issue by concentrating on civil rights, choosing at one point to guide the administration’s Fair Housing bill through the Senate, though it had twice been rejected by Congress. In what the New York Times described as “a stunning victory for a tiny band of scrappy liberals”, Mondale doggedly forced the legislation on to the statute book. His efforts were recognised by being asked to manage what turned out to be Humphrey’s calamitous 1968 presidential campaign.
In the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, that year’s Democratic convention in Chicago was a disaster, featuring nightly television pictures of antiwar rioters being brutally attacked by local police. Humphrey himself was indelibly stained by his support for the war, and the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, continued the southern Democrats’ anti-civil rights revolt by running as a third party candidate. Richard Nixon narrowly won the White House with 301 electoral college votes.
Mondale publicly renounced his support for the war and concentrated on domestic issues. After a three-year legislative battle over federal court orders that pupils be transported to distant schools to secure racial balance, he had to give up in the face of a white backlash.
The Democrats’ continuing disarray was further demonstrated by their choice of an ultra-liberal, George McGovern, as the party’s 1972 presidential candidate. Mondale declined McGovern’s invitation to join the ticket.
He seemed destined to spend the rest of his political life in the Senate until the Watergate scandal forced Nixon’s resignation. President Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon of his patron generated a countrywide revulsion and, in this far more propitious climate, Mondale accepted Carter’s offer of the 1976 vice-presidential slot. They squeezed into office by a mere two per cent of the popular vote, clear warning that they still had to prove themselves.
Far more experienced in national politics than the new president, Mondale argued that the vice-president should have a wide-ranging and independent advisory role. To be effective he should receive all intelligence and other significant information sent to the president. Carter agreed and extended the vice-president’s role to become second-in-command of America’s nuclear arsenal. The two also arranged to hold weekly meetings to review administration policies. It might have worked splendidly had Carter been a better president, but his wavering policies and the increasing tensions they created among members of Congress became insuperable. Years later Mondale commented that: “Carter lost confidence in his ability to lead public opinion. He told me once that people no longer listened to what he had to say.” So, for all Mondale’s effort to appease members of Congress, the administration lurched from one crisis to another.
The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the revolutionary regime’s seizure of American embassy staff in Tehran sounded the death knell of Carter’s presidency. It was already in steep decline when a military attempt to rescue the diplomatic hostages went disastrously wrong. Reagan cantered into the White House.
Four years later, Mondale’s own bid to remove him was probably doomed from the outset. He hated campaigning on television, which he thought too shallow for serious politics, and was a stiff and unconvincing performer in a medium that Reagan had effortlessly mastered.
Mondale was also unlucky. On a trip to Philadelphia his frustrated staff finally persuaded him to highlight local unemployment by chatting onscreen to a young couple. “I understand you lost your job,” Mondale said encouragingly to the wife. “Oh yes,” she responded brightly, “but I got a new one that’s even better.” The chagrined loser lay low for some time before returning to his legal practice in 1987.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to Japan – a well-established perquisite for defeated politicians of both parties. When he returned from Tokyo three years later, at the age of 68, he seemed bound for a comfortable retirement.
However, in the 2002 election he was dramatically summoned to the party colours. Eleven days before polling Minnesota’s senior senator, Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter and five campaign staff were killed in a plane crash. Since the Minnesota result could determine control of the Senate, local Democrats persuaded a reluctant Mondale to stand in Wellstone’s place. Incredibly, and to Mondale’s horror, the party hierarchy then turned the family’s memorial service into a campaign rally, a disastrous miscalculation condemned across the state.
Mondale lost the election by a two per cent margin – the only time he was ever defeated in Minnesota. It was none of his doing and a sadly bitter note on which to exit from public life. In 2018 Carter and other leading figures joined him to celebrate his 90th birthday.
His daughter, Eleanor, died in 2011, and Joan died in 2014. He is survived by his sons, Theodore and William, and four grandchildren.
• Walter Frederick Mondale, politician, born 5 January 1928; died 19 April 2021