Walter F. Mondale, a preacher's son from southern Minnesota who climbed to the pinnacle of U.S. politics as an influential senator, vice president and Democratic nominee for president, died on Monday. He was 93.
Known as "Fritz" to family, friends and voters alike, Mondale died in Minneapolis, according to a statement from his family.
"As proud as we were of him leading the presidential ticket for Democrats in 1984, we know that our father's public policy legacy is so much more than that," read the Mondale family statement.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who chose Mondale as his running mate in 1976, called his friend "the best vice president in our country's history."
"He was an invaluable partner and an able servant of the people of Minnesota, the United States and the world," Carter said in a statement. "Fritz Mondale provided us all with a model for public service and private behavior."
After serving four years under Carter, Mondale was the Democratic nominee for president in 1984. He lost to the incumbent, President Ronald Reagan, in a historic landslide.
"A night like that is hard on you," Mondale wrote in his 2010 memoir, "The Good Fight."
Even in defeat, Mondale made history by choosing as his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket. It followed a series of political landmarks in a public career that spanned seven decades.
A protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, another Minnesota politician who rose to the vice presidency and lost a presidential election, Mondale served as a U.S. senator from Minnesota for a dozen years. He played a lead role in the passage of social programs, civil rights laws and environmental protections that defined President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society."
As vice president from 1977 to 1981, Mondale transformed the office from what had historically been a punchline into what both he and Carter called a true governing partnership. Mondale's role as chief adviser and troubleshooter, working from a West Wing office near the Oval Office, became a model for successors including George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.
"The first person I called was Fritz," Biden once said about the time President Barack Obama offered him the No. 2 position.
"Just as George Washington set the contours for the presidency, Mondale more than anyone else made the vice presidency into a robust and constructive institution," said vice presidential scholar Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University.
Mondale's high profile in the Carter administration as it grappled with inflation, an energy crisis and the 444-day Iranian hostage standoff set him on a path to his party's presidential nomination in 1984. But his overwhelming defeat did not end his public career.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. ambassador to Japan, a post he held for three years. And in 2002, tragedy pulled Mondale back into Minnesota politics.
When Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash just 11 days before he was up for re-election, Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party put Mondale's name on the ballot in Wellstone's place. He lost to Republican Norm Coleman — the first time he lost a race in his home state. It was the last time Mondale's name appeared on a ballot.
Wry and unassuming, Mondale had an honest, down-to-earth approach that didn't always serve him well as a candidate. Notoriously, in a debate with Reagan, he said he would raise taxes on Americans. He was attempting to argue that he and Reagan both would raise taxes, but that only Mondale was willing to admit it.
"I did what I thought was right," Mondale wrote in his memoir.
Walter Frederick Mondale was born in Ceylon, Minn., on Jan. 5, 1928, to Theodore and Claribel Mondale. His mother was a music teacher, his father a Methodist minister who admired progressive lions like Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson and Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.
The family moved to the small town of Elmore, just north of the Iowa border, when Mondale was in elementary school. He later became active in student government — he lost his bid for senior class president — and was a successful high school athlete.
In 1941, Mondale, then 13, visited Washington for the first time. It was a family road trip, with the Mondale parents and their three sons stuffed into a car pulling a homemade trailer stacked with canned food, mattresses and a bedroom dresser. They slept along the road to avoid campground fees.
"We must have looked like a bunch of Minnesota hicks," brother Mort Mondale told People magazine in 1984.
A few years later, when Mondale was an undergraduate at St. Paul's Macalester College, a professor urged him to attend a speech by Humphrey, then the 35-year-old mayor of Minneapolis. In his memoir, Mondale recalled a speech that "had that crowd on fire and the paint blistering off the walls."
Mondale later introduced himself to Orville Freeman, Humphrey's 28-year-old campaign manager, who went on to serve as governor of Minnesota and U.S. agriculture secretary. Soon Mondale was knocking on doors for the young mayor's re-election campaign, and when Humphrey ran for U.S. Senate in 1948, Mondale was the campaign's lead organizer in southern Minnesota.
After his father died, Mondale left Macalester, unable to afford the tuition. He transferred to the University of Minnesota; after graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Army and, following a two-year stint, returned to attend the U Law School.
The ensuing years saw Mondale rise quickly in Minnesota political and legal circles, one in a tight-knit cadre of DFL up-and-comers in Humphrey's orbit as their party overturned decades of Republican dominance in the state.
Those relationships served Mondale well — so much so that his first two political offices came by appointment rather than election.
In 1960, when Minnesota Attorney General Miles Lord resigned, Gov. Freeman appointed Mondale to replace him. Mondale was 32 years old and four years out of law school at the time.
In that job, Mondale led an amicus brief by 23 of the nation's attorneys general in supporting the right to counsel for Clarence Gideon, a man who couldn't afford a lawyer. The Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright established for the first time a criminal defendant's right to legal counsel.
Then, in 1965, when Johnson made Humphrey his vice president, Gov. Karl Rolvaag appointed Mondale to the U.S. Senate.
"His style was such that Freeman, Rolvaag, Humphrey and other party seniors would find him politically reliable and personally compatible," former Star Tribune reporter Finlay Lewis wrote of Mondale in a 1980 biography. "Mondale's was the demeanor of a reasonable man who could be counted on not to offend or embarrass his allies. He possessed two of the most valued of all political gifts — caution and good judgment."
One night in 1955, a law school classmate invited Mondale to dinner with his wife and her sister, Joan Adams. An art history student and the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian minister, Joan "had an elegance that was quite outside my experience," Mondale wrote.
She agreed to a date, and after a total of seven dates over six months, they were married in the Macalester chapel on Dec. 27, 1955.
A partnership of nearly 60 years was born. Joan Mondale would become a lifelong advocate for the arts, leveraging her platform as Second Lady and earning the nickname "Joan of Art."
The Mondales had three children. Ted followed his father into politics, serving in the Minnesota Senate and later leading the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission. William became a lawyer. Eleanor, a radio and TV personality, died of cancer in 2011. Joan Mondale died in 2014.
On Saturday, Mondale sent a note to a group of former staffers and campaign aides. He knew the end was near.
"Well my time has come," he wrote. "I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor."
The Great Society
Mondale, following directly in Humphrey's footsteps, was at the forefront of national politics during an era he would later call "a high tide of American liberalism." Johnson's overwhelming win in the 1964 presidential election set the stage for a strengthening of the social safety net and advances in civil rights, conservation and other progressive goals.
In the U.S. Senate, Mondale shepherded into law a bill to ban racial discrimination in housing, which became known as the Fair Housing Act. In their statement announcing his death, his family called that "one of his proudest — and hardest fought — achievements … we are grateful that he had the opportunity to see the emergence of another generation of civil rights reckoning in the past months."
Mondale was a leading driver of major environmental reforms, pushing legislation to protect Minnesota's Boundary Waters and rivers and streams around the country from commercial development.
Even after Johnson left office, Mondale continued to lead on major legislation. In 1974, he sponsored the first federal law to crack down on child abuse. He was an important player in the creation of Title IX, the federal law that gave women equal access to publicly funded sports programs. And he served on the Senate's Church Committee, one of the first major congressional crackdowns on abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies.
At times, Mondale's views put him at odds with Johnson and Humphrey. He kept publicly quiet about his growing opposition to the Vietnam War before the 1968 election. As a top adviser to Humphrey, then the Democratic presidential candidate, Mondale counseled his mentor to support a bombing halt in North Vietnam.
After Republican Richard Nixon won the White House that November, Mondale came out fully against the Vietnam War.
Mondale announced in 1973 that he was considering a run for president in 1976. But by 1974 he changed his mind, in typically self-deprecating fashion: "I had pulled about even with 'None of the Above' in national opinion surveys, and I dropped that bid — to widespread applause," Mondale later wrote.
Soon Mondale was on the shortlist of running mates for James Earl Carter Jr., a Georgia governor who became the Democratic nominee in 1976. A centrist and a Washington outsider, Carter found in Mondale a savvy D.C. player with credibility on the party's left.
"He needed some help in the official Democratic arena," Mondale recalled in a 2015 interview with the Star Tribune. "And I'd been in more union halls and to more Democratic dinners than any living American."
Both men have written of their immediate affinity for one another, growing up as they did in religious, small-town families. Mondale told Carter he'd join the ticket only with assurances of a significant role in the new administration, and Carter agreed.
"Fritz Mondale was an equal partner with me in every single thing I did," Carter said in 2001, when the University of Minnesota named its law school building after Mondale.
At Carter's side when he negotiated a historic peace accord between Egypt and Israel, Mondale was closely involved in foreign policy decisions. In 1979, Mondale persuaded world leaders to intervene and help thousands of Southeast Asian refugees known as "boat people." Many settled in Minnesota, laying the groundwork for Minnesota's thriving Hmong community.
Mondale has said he didn't agree with every major decision Carter made. He pleaded with him not to deliver what came to be known as the "malaise speech," meant to calm Americans' fears about high gas prices, high unemployment and inflation.
But Mondale in later years took issue with dim views of the Carter presidency, calling him "a brilliant, courageous leader and a strong president." Their political partnership created a lifelong friendship.
When Carter lost his 1980 re-election bid to Reagan, Mondale quickly emerged as the Democratic front-runner for the 1984 election. He birthed an early political meme when, in a Democratic debate, he diminished a rival's vague proposals with a quip lifted from a popular fast-food commercial of the time: "Where's the beef?"
But Mondale's focus on social justice and his promise to raise taxes to reduce the federal deficit did little to win over voters charmed by Reagan's genial conservatism. In the end, Reagan carried 49 states; Mondale won only Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
"You know, in 1984, I might have voted for Reagan," Mondale later told a reporter. "They hit the right theme at the time: 'It's morning in America. Let's feel good. There are no problems.' I was the sort of guy reminding people that there had to be some sacrifices. … Reagan just resonated so much better than I did."
Geraldine Ferraro died in 2011, but Mondale lived to see a woman become vice president when Kamala Harris assumed the office in 2021.
Following their loss, Mondale went back to practicing law; he and Joan soon settled back in the Twin Cities. Other than the three years they lived in Tokyo during Mondale's ambassadorship, they called the area home.
In 1990, some prominent DFLers urged Mondale to run again for Senate from Minnesota. He opted not to, saying it was time for a new generation of DFL leaders. That cleared the way for Wellstone's ascent.
'Uncanny good luck'
When Humphrey died in January of 1978, Mondale eulogized him in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, calling him the "country's conscience."
Humphrey was like a father to him, Mondale later wrote. Humphrey, in an interview late in his life, offered a concise appraisal of his protégé's own political success.
"I think this is one of the great elements of mystery in Fritz's life," Humphrey said. "He has the uncanny good luck of being able to be at a certain point at a certain time, and the time and the point are both right for the circumstances."
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.