Many of you will recognize the above phrase as the signature slogan of Walter Mondale’s campaign during his ill-fated run for the 1984 presidency. Despite that catchy slogan, which was derived from a popular tv commercial in the early 1980s, Mondale suffered an historic defeat. More on that later.
Walter Frederick (“Fritz”) Mondale was a politician, lawyer, diplomat and statesman. He served in the US Senate representing the State of Minnesota from 1964-1976. He was US vice president from 1977-1980 under President Jimmy Carter, and he ran for President in 1984, losing to Ronald Reagan. More on that later too.
Mondale was born on January 5, 1928 in Ceylon, MN. His father was a Methodist minister, and his mother worked as a part-time music teacher. Mondale had two brothers and a half-brother. His father’s family was primarily of Norwegian descent, and his mother was of English-Scottish ancestry. The name “Mondale” was derived from Mundal, a town in Norway. Like many immigrants, upon their arrival in the US, Mondale’s forbears chose (or were given) the surname of their home town in the “old” country. Also, like many other immigrants, at some point they anglicized the name to “fit in” better in America.
Upon graduating high school Mondale attended the University of Minnesota from which he graduated cum laude with a BA in political science in 1951. He wanted to go to law school, but money was “tight,” so he enlisted in the Army. It was during the Korean War, but, luckily, Mondale was assigned to Fort Knox. Following his honorable discharge he attended the University of Minnesota Law School on the GI Bill and, once again, graduated cum laude. Afterwards, he practiced law for four years.
Along the way, he met his future wife, Joan, on a blind date. They were married in 1955.
Mondale exhibited an interest in politics at an early age. For example, in 1948 at the tender age of 20, he helped organize Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey’s successful campaign for the US Senate. In 1952 and 1956 he worked on Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman’s campaign staff. (Freeman lost in 1952 and then won in 1956.) As a reward for his loyal service in 1960 Governor Freeman appointed Mondale to fill the recently-vacated office of MN Attorney General. Two years later Mondale won election to the office in his own right. In 1964, MN Governor Karl Rolvaag appointed him to the US Senate to replace Humphrey following his election to vice president. Subsequently, in 1966 and 1972 he was elected in his own right.
In 1976 he became VP under Jimmy Carter. However, Carter’s administration was very unpopular. There were many reasons but the main ones were (1) a bad economy, which produced double-digit inflation, (2) a severe oil shortage, which culminated in long gas lines, and (3) Iran humiliating the US by taking and holding several Americans prisoner. As a result, Carter’s and Mondale’s re-election campaign was doomed almost from the start.
Mondale is generally credited with establishing the now popular concept of being an “activist” vice president. For example, the office had generally been nothing more than that of a figurehead . The VP’s sole function was to be available to fill the role of president when, as and if needed due to illness, assassination or some other cataclysmic event. Mondale expanded the role of the office significantly. For instance, he was the first vp to establish an office in the White House; he had lunches with the president on a weekly basis; and, in general, served as an advisor and troubleshooter for Carter.
In 1984 Mondale reached the peak of his political career when he captured the Democrat Party nomination for President. His two main rivals were Colorado Senator Gary Hart and political activist Jesse Jackson. Mondale considered Hart’s policies to be misleading and shallow. In order to hammer home this point he denigrated them with the phrase “where’s the beef,” which was very familiar to most voters as the tag line of a popular TV commercial. He used this phrase repeatedly at all his campaign rallies, and the crowds loved it. It became one of those memorable lines that still resonates today. (Most of us remember the line, but can you name the company and the product? See the answer below.)
After winning the nomination aides said Mondale was determined to make an “historic choice ” as his vp nominee. He considered women, such as San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, African Americans, such as LA Mayor Tom Bradley, and Hispanics, such as San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Ultimately, he selected Geraldine Ferraro , a US Representative from NY. It didn’t matter. The incumbent, Ronald Reagan, was very popular and the economy was very strong. Mondale was generally perceived as too liberal, and he suffered the worst electoral defeat in history by a Democrat, 525-13. He only won Washington, D.C. and his home state of MN.
In retrospect I and many other observers believe Reagan won the election at the beginning of the second debate, which is very rare. Most people don’t remember that Reagan had “lost” the first debate, and at the time the issue was in doubt. It was akin to winning a baseball game in the first inning or an NBA game in the first quarter. At the time, Reagan was, at 73, was the oldest person to serve as president. Mondale, at 56, was perceived as being significantly younger. His age was the voters’ primary concern. Reagan destroyed that issue with the following quip: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It was, in my view, one of the most memorable and effective statements in presidential debate history. Everyone laughed, even Mondale. Just like that, Reagan had negated his primary liability.
I always considered Mondale to be a genuinely nice guy, even though I didn’t agree with most of his political views. He was not disingenuous, nasty or mean-spirited as so many politicians are today. He was a consensus-builder, not a divider as seems to be the norm today.
After the election Mondale essentially lived a quiet life away from the national spotlight, although he did serve as ambassador to Japan and as chairman of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. In addition, he maintained a close relationship with his alma mater and with his Norwegian heritage. He enjoyed a variety of hobbies such as skiing, fishing, reading and tennis.
He passed away quietly in his sleep of natural causes on April 19. At the time of his death he held the distinction of being the oldest living former US VP. Unfortunately, his passing was underreported by the national media considering his contributions and accomplishments to the country. Most of the media and the public seemed to be more interested in the Derek Chauvin trial, other police shootings, and the crisis at the southern border, among other things.
Rest in peace Fritz. You served this country well, and you will be sorely missed.
Quiz answer: Wendy’s hamburgers.