SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Minnesota and the United States lost an honest, dedicated public servant when Walter “Fritz” Mondale died on Monday, those who knew him said today.
“He was very honest and full of integrity in his personal life as well as in his political life,” said long-time friend and former staff member David Lillehaug. Lillehaug is a recently retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice.
Mondale, 93, was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, vice president under Democrat president Jimmy Carter, 1984 Democrat candidate for president as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, died on Monday. He was also the first presidential candidate to choose a woman as his running mate.
Lillehaug served as Mondale’s personal aide for the 1983-1984 presidential election. Lillehaug was with Mondale as soon as he was awake and was the last person to see him at night. Mondale’s personal integrity was as pristine as his political integrity, Lillehaug said.
Lillehaug worked with him again on Mondale’s 2002 U.S. Senate campaign to fill Democrat Paul Wellstone’s seat after Wellstone’s death. Lillehaug grew up in Sioux Falls and graduated from Washington High School and Augustana University.
When Steven Hildebrand of Sioux Falls met Mondale in 1987 he was struck by Mondale’s sincerity and compassion. Hildebrand was working on Skip Humphrey’s U.S. Senate campaign and Mondale was the campaign chairman.
“Just how honest and decent he was,” Hildebrand said of how Mondale was in his personal and political life.
“He was brutally honest to his own detriment,” Hildebrand said. Mondale’s honesty likely help lead to his landslide loss to Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale won Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
1984 presidential loss
At one point during the campaign, the campaign fund was running low. Supporters devised a structure to raise more money but Mondale didn’t agree with it, Lillehaug said. He didn’t think it was ethical, Lillehaug said.
“One defining moment for him was at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. At that time the deficit, like it is today, was completely out of control,” Lillehaug said. “So in intellectual honesty he said ‘I’m gonna raise taxes.'”
Mondale tried to make it a positive by saying he said he would raise taxes where Reagan would say he would not but would likely need to, Lillehaug said. The public did not respond as if the comment were a positive.
“His penchant for telling the truth helped him lose the election,” Lillehaug said.
David Sturrock, a political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall, Minnesota, said Mondale had other challenges in the 1984 presidential election.
“1984 was going to be a tough year for any Democrat, given Ronald Reagan’s popularity and the booming economy,” Sturrock said. “Mondale himself acknowledged he was bucking a conservative trend in public opinion, and ruefully noted that he was not well suited for television-era campaigning.”
Choosing a woman to run as vice president
Lillehaug was with Mondale when he called Geraldine Ferraro to offer her the vice presidential position.
Ferraro flew to Minnesota for the announcement at the state capitol in St. Paul. Like Lillehaug she stayed at Mondale’s home in Oak Park, a Twin Cities suburb.
“The electricity in that room was unbelievable,” Lillehaug said of announcement. “Women and girls were crying. They thought they would never see the day.”
The Mondale-Ferraro ticket did not win but Lillehaug said Mondale open doors for the future. More than 30 years later, Kamala Harris was elected vice president under Democrat Joe Biden.
Bill Walsh’s family understands the significance of Mondale’s selection. A photo of Walsh’s wife Jo Roebuck-Pearson and daughter MacKenzie with Ferraro and then U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle hangs in Walsh and his wife’s bedroom in Deadwood.
Mondale shapes the role of the vice president
Before Mondale choose Ferraro as his running mate he served as vice president under Democrat Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980.
Multiple analysts and political scientists have said the role of vice president was changed by Mondale.
“Mondale made a strong first impression on Jimmy Carter by reading Carter’s book before meeting with him to discuss the vice presidency,” Sturrock said. “Carter then took advantage of Mondale’s talents by assigning him major responsibilities in foreign policy, congressional relations and general trouble-shooting. He also gave him access to all presidential meetings and briefing papers, which later presidents have continued with their vice presidents.”
Al Gore, the vice president with Democrat President Bill Clinton from 1992 to 2000, set it best, Lillehaug said.
Gore said there was the vice president’s role before Mondale and after Mondale, Lillehaug said.
“Mondale has an office in the White House,” Lillehaug said. The office for vice presidents were not in the White House until Mondale.
“He had access to all intelligence information…,” Lillehaug said.
Mondale’s work as a public servant
Selecting Ferraro as a running mate opened doors and Mondale’s career as a public servant is marked by opening doors, Lillehaug said.
Mondale pushed for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, for civil rights for all and programs to make improvements for children in poverty.
“As senator and vice president he played major roles in many policy areas, notably civil rights, child-poverty, education, housing, conservation and the space program,” Sturrock said.
Lillehaug said Mondale also advocated for women’s rights and civil rights for the LGBTQ community.
Sturrock said Mondale was a key politician in post-war liberalism.
“He was very smart, very progressive,” Hildebrand said of Mondale. “He very much believed that government should use all of its good to do good things for the country.”
His views and political attentions were often like U.S. Senator and fellow Democrat George McGovern, of South Dakota. McGovern too, ran for president. Most notable was his resounding loss to Republican Richard Nixon in 1972.
Hildebrand said people outside of the Midwest may be surprised that South Dakota and Minnesota produced liberal politicians but Mondale and McGovern reflected some core values of the Midwest.
They understood the importance of advocating for the poor, for health care for all and for a safety net for farmers, as examples, Hildebrand said.
Lillehaug said while McGovern and Mondale were liberals, McGovern leaned more to the left at times than did Mondale.
Mondale was also more willing to compromise and more focused on trying work with the other political party at times than McGovern, Lillehaug said.
“He was a tremendous public servant,” said former U.S. Rep. Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
Mondale was influenced by other prominent Minnesota politician including Orville Freeman, who served as governor and Hubert Humphrey, Peterson said.
“Mondale was actively involved in his party for more than 70 years,” Sturrock said. “He was a field organizer for Hubert Humphrey’s first Senate campaign in 1948, and in recent decades a warmly-regarded elder statesman and trusted advisor to leading Democratic officeholders. In between he was Minnesota Attorney General, U.S. Senator, Vice President, nominee for President, and Ambassador to Japan.”
Mondale had a sense of humor
Although he may have seemed, or was, at ease in front of TV cameras or at some public appearances, Lillehaug said Mondale had a sense of humor.
He wasn’t a joke teller but he often had a witty quip or comment during a conversation or discussion, Lillehaug said.
Peterson said after Mondale was not in office, “he did host one fundraiser for me. I remember him complaining about it. He was kidding me.”
Peterson said Mondale joked that he didn’t know why he had to host a fundraiser for Peterson.
Walsh was at luncheon to honor McGovern at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. As one of 50 guests, Walsh among former presidential candidates Gary Hart and Michael Dukasis.
“Fritz stole the show,” Walsh said of Mondale. “It really turned out to be more of a roast of McGovern. (Mondale) was hilarious. You could tell they were very, very close.”