Walter Mondale swirls in his chair to review the long list of scheduling requests rolling into his downtown Minneapolis office. One group hopes to honor him for his work preserving the scenic St. Croix River. Another wants him to say a few words at a gala. Still another request comes from a middle-school student in Chaska, hoping to ask him about the Superfund program.
Flights to New York and Washington, D.C., need booking. Journalists coast to coast call or e-mail seeking interviews. Birthday brunches, business lunches, casual coffees and formal dinners are on the table, too.
Even at 91, the demands on a former U.S. vice president’s time don’t stop. Mondale grants as many requests as he reasonably can — even from students. Even from middle schoolers. “Especially middle schoolers,” he says, his face brightening into his signature beaming smile. “They teach us a lot.”
Three-and-a-half decades removed from a run as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. presidency, Minnesota’s highest-profile statesman is still giving back, his political power gracefully given way to influence and public service.
While the grind of an election campaign is well behind him and his hair is now white, he’s still politically engaged and operating at an ample pace, reading two newspapers every morning, plowing through 900-page books, debating national policy questions with friends and colleagues, co-teaching a graduate-level class and providing guidance to politicians who seek his counsel.
“Mondale is a very good example of how you can be purposeful after retirement,” says former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, a fellow retiree who counts Mondale among his friends even though they were on opposite sides of the political aisle. “You want to wake up in the morning and be able to have some value. I think too many senior citizens put their value in their golf game or fishing or whatever it may be. I kind of admire Walter for staying active in areas of public service, public life.”
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a fellow Democrat, still consults Mondale before making big career decisions. The two met, she recalls, in 1989 during a campaign door-knocking event when she was a relative unknown, and they’ve been friends ever since.
“Everybody wants to ask his advice, wants to get his approval, wants to know what he thinks about things,” she says. “He has so much insight.”
From the moment he wakes in his downtown Minneapolis condo overlooking the Mississippi River, Mondale works hard to stay current. Sitting in his favorite green velvet armchair, he pores over both the New York Times and the “Minneapolis Tribune,” as he calls it, referring to the newspaper’s old name.
To his left, bookshelves are filled with tomes on World War II, civil rights and, of course, U.S. politics, including a few where the name “Mondale” figures prominently. He loves reading history books because he learns so much from them, he says. He doesn’t apologize for steering clear of fiction.
“I once said I don’t read it because it’s not true,” he recalls. “And I got a very nasty note from Garrison Keillor. … He thought that was ridiculous, but there I go.”
An aide arrives at 7 a.m. on weekdays to cook and handle household chores. He’ll almost always eat breakfast from pottery thrown by his late wife, Joan. Photos of her and their late daughter, Eleanor, and many other family members form a gallery taped to the kitchen cupboards.
By midmorning, the aide drives Mondale, wearing loose khakis and a sports coat, to his downtown office at the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney. On the 20th floor, he is greeted by Lynda Pedersen, his hyper-organized executive assistant who he calls his “not-so-secret weapon.” She often hands him a cup of coffee right as he walks in, eliciting a dry joke: “Why do I always have to wait so long for this?”
In his modest corner office overlooking Target Field, Mondale makes calls, writes e-mails, and reads news on his desktop and smartphone.
“I’ll show you how to do it if you haven’t done it,” he says to a visitor, pulling out his iPhone and clicking on a New York Times app. “It’s fun. … This, you can catch anytime and get the news. See it?”
It’s no wonder, then, that curveballs don’t faze him. When a journalist from a local radio station interviewed him recently about a civil rights figure, she couldn’t resist lobbing a few extra queries on different topics before she left:
What are Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s chances of winning the nomination for president?
And what about news on Robert Mueller’s investigation of the last presidential campaign?
Mondale didn’t hesitate.
A longtime Klobuchar supporter, he says he believes she will “wear well” in the campaign, but with so many candidates it was too early to tell.
As for the Mueller investigation: “This was a horrible moment in American history where a foreign country had a deep influence in an American election,” he says. “That should offend everybody, regardless of the foreign country. So we’ve gotta look hard at that.”
Satisfied, the reporter turned off her recorder and Mondale gave her a friendly smile. “I cleared my hurdle here with you, huh?” he says. He then turned the tables, asking her questions about her work. “Whadda ya got for the rest of the day?”
‘A Minnesota treasure’
Those who personally know “Fritz” Mondale use similar adjectives to describe him. Humble. Genuine. Decent.
In today’s hyper-divisive world of politics, Mondale is a throwback to an earlier era, when politicians such as Hubert Humphrey, Wendy Anderson and Karl Rolvaag “had contacts across the aisle” and were more open to compromise, says Norman Sherman, a friend and onetime aide to Humphrey.
“He is partisan, but he’s not rigid,” Sherman says.
While politics and campaigns have changed, Mondale’s “politics of civility and just his good-government view is more important than ever,” Klobuchar says. On the campaign trail, she often quotes him reflecting on his time as vice president: “ ‘We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.’ I always say that is the minimum that we should expect in a president,” Klobuchar says.
Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs who co-teaches a course with Mondale, says some students may be surprised to find that Mondale criticizes both Democratic and Republican leaders for running afoul of the country’s fundamental principles.
For instance, during their nonpartisan class on presidential power and the U.S. Constitution, Mondale has pointed out “that the Obama administration and previous recent administrations had bypassed Congress in pursuing unilateral presidential action,” Jacobs recalls. “His commitment to the Constitution remains. His mastery of history and contemporary events is undiminished.”
“He’s a Minnesota treasure,” adds Carlson, the former Republican governor. “I mean that. He’s always represented competence, thoughtfulness and fairness.”
Mondale has always been known to gather opinions and reach consensus, Carlson says.
“If people were to be critical of him, they’d say ‘well, he’s not quick in making decisions.’ That’s correct,” Carlson says. “He is confident. He is self-assured. But he also understands that he doesn’t know everything and seeks out the best in everybody else.”
Smith sees Mondale’s humility when she meets him for chicken wings at the Monte Carlo in the North Loop. He asks a lot about her and her family, she says.
“A lot of politicians spend most of their time talking about themselves,” Smith says. “He can be annoyingly difficult … when you’re trying to get him to talk about himself, he’s very elusive.”
He’s had the spotlight plenty over the years — state attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president, presidential candidate, U.S. ambassador to Japan. He’s been a victor, and also suffered massive defeats. In 1984, during his presidential run, he lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan.
The campaign loss was a blow that he could see coming, he says, but he doesn’t think there was anything he could have done to produce a different outcome. The public didn’t want a Democrat at that time, he says, and not a guy who had served as vice president under Jimmy Carter.
Still, recovering from the sting took a while.
“I had a stack of books next to my bed and I’d read sometimes all night because I couldn’t sleep, and Joan used to get mad at me and I said, ‘you know, I think this is the best way to do it.’ Then finally I was only reading half the night, and then a third of the night,” he says. “But it took me some time to be normal. I mean, it hurt.”
Politics is a rough game, and at times he’s had some rough edges.
“When I went to Washington, I was so insecure I was sort of pushing my staff too hard in an unfair way,” Mondale recalls. “Then my staff director Mike Berman pulled me aside: ‘Look, you’re a big ass. You’ve gotta stop this. You’ve gotta be kind to people or they’re not gonna work for you.’ So under that wise advice, I changed.”
Nowadays, Mondale, who grew up modestly as the son of a minister in tiny Elmore, Minn., doesn’t ask to be the center of attention or drive an agenda, colleagues say. But he’s still motivated by a sense of responsibility for the future and he’s happy to lend support when people request it.
He says he’s not getting as many calls as he used to, but son-in-law Chan Poling, who spends time with the Mondale family every winter at a rented house in Captiva, Fla., says it’s not unusual to walk by Mondale and hear him on the phone with the likes of Madeleine Albright or Joe Biden.
“He’s definitely keeping his hand in it,” Poling says. “The guy has no ego. … I see his drive into trying to make things right.”
On a drizzly spring evening, Mondale’s grandson drives him in a white Chevy sedan to the Humphrey School, where Mondale emerges gingerly from the passenger seat and walks into a gala alone — no Secret Service agent, no personal assistants following.
At the check-in table, cane in hand, Mondale asks young staffers about their work. When the school’s dean introduces him, the crowd rises and delivers a standing ovation. Mondale, standing at his table, launches into a seemingly extemporaneous five-minute speech laden with sincerity, effusive with praise and laced with humor.
Recognizing a member of Gov. Tim Walz’s administration among the guests, Mondale recites a lighthearted anecdote from earlier in the day revealing that, like everyone else, he gets robocalls.
“Do you get calls with no name on it and you don’t know whether to take it or not?” he asks the crowd, as if he were chatting with a friend. “Well, I got a call like that today … it had a Rochester  area code … I wasn’t gonna take it, but my secretary said you better take it. So I took it.”
Then came the kicker: “It was the governor on the line,” he says to laughter from the crowd. “I said, ‘I’m glad to talk to you.’ He’s doing a great job. You’re all doing a great job.” Later, his dinner sat half-eaten as Mondale indulged a steady stream of well-wishers seeking handshakes and photos.
The gala was held in the building’s atrium, now named the Joan and Walter Mondale Commons, and the master of ceremonies paid tribute to Joan Mondale’s promotion of the arts.
Joan Mondale’s death in 2014 still aches. “He was very, very close to his wife,” Carlson says.
Through 58 years of marriage (they were engaged 53 days after their first date) they supported each other in everything, including the loss of their daughter, Eleanor, to brain cancer 7 ½ years ago.
“Awful,” Mondale says, quietly exhaling a guttural groan as he looks at photographs of them in his condo. “Very hard.”
If he gets sad or discouraged, it never lasts long. Often, he calls on the strength of both women for inspiration, he says. “If I continued to dwell on the negative, my wife would bong me on the head in some way to tell me get over it,” he says. “So I try to stay positive and forward-looking.”
As the first presidential nominee from a major party to select a woman as a running mate — something Joan pushed, he says — Mondale broke down a barrier and he’s still hearing how it inspired people.
Women leaders sometimes tell him that Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination propelled them in their careers.
“I’ve heard comments like that all over. … I never thought of that as being important, but it was,” he says. “We had a whole generation of women that felt they were boxed in, couldn’t move, a lot of times knew they had the talent, but didn’t think they’d be considered because they were a woman. I think that’s changed a lot, don’t you? … That’s progress.”
He will help Klobuchar’s presidential campaign in any way he can, he says. And he will continue to support Smith and many others. “I’ve worked for a long time in trying to get more women in government, break up that stag party.”
It’s part of Mondale’s history-changing track record pushing for a litany of issues that may have seemed radical at the time but now are standard: Title IX for girls’ and women’s sports, the Fair Housing Act to end discrimination in housing in the 1960s, and leading the domestic spying inquiry for the Church Committee, which spurred limits on national intelligence agencies.
Decades later, Mondale continues to support other public fairness causes. He is consulting with Minnesota leaders who are re-examining redistricting practices, for instance.
“I think it’s important that the public be fairly represented,” he says. “When you rig districts, you usually tilt the process so that you get the result that you want. It’s like the politician picking his people rather than the people picking the politician, and I think the latter idea is the American idea, so I try every way I can to get decent and open and honest redistricting.”
Another big concern: the environment. A lifelong fisherman who still casts his line in remote places, including Alaska and the Canadian wilderness, Mondale worked to preserve natural spaces even before the rise of environmental politics.
“He will make a claim that he’s one of the world’s greatest fishermen. All I’m gonna say is he’s still working on it,” quips St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, whose remote and rustic family cabin has hosted the Mondales for years. “He’s still working on his walleye-catching skills.”
In the 1960s, Mondale and Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson co-sponsored legislation to protect the St. Croix and other rivers from development under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — one of the most satisfying moments of his career, he has said. He also worked on legislation to protect other rivers and create Voyageurs National Park.
For a period of time this spring, legislators from both parties pushed to rename a state park along the St. Croix after Mondale. Then someone pointed out a Minnesota law preventing naming entities after a living person.
Mondale was honored at the thought and poked fun at the complication. “If I’ll croak, maybe they can get it done,” he says. In the meantime, he’ll continue to enjoy the natural beauty that he worked to preserve.
He and several friends gather for lunch at the Swede Hollow Cafe in St. Paul to plan their annual summer fishing trips.
“We discuss the problems of the world and settle most of them,” says buddy George Millard. “He’s always interested. He’s got a good sense of humor and it carries him through and he’s doing pretty well. Quite well, in fact. Every time I talk to him, he wants to know when we’re going to go fishing.”