Walter Mondale, former US vice-president and celebrated liberal, dies aged 93 | US politics | The Guardian

Walter Mondale, former US vice-president and celebrated liberal, dies aged 93

Former senator and ambassador lost one of the most lopsided US elections in history to Ronald Reagan

Jimmy Carter embraces Walter Mondale on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington in January 1978, after Carter returned from a nine-day overseas trip.
Jimmy Carter embraces Walter Mondale on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington in January 1978, after Carter returned from a nine-day overseas trip. Photograph: John Duricka/AP
Jimmy Carter embraces Walter Mondale on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington in January 1978, after Carter returned from a nine-day overseas trip. Photograph: John Duricka/AP
in New York and agencies

First published on Mon 19 Apr 2021 21.15 EDT

Walter F Mondale, the former vice-president and liberal leader who lost to Ronald Reagan in one of the most lopsided presidential elections, has died at the age of 93.

A towering figure in the Democratic party who resolutely put humility and honesty before the glitz of mass communication, Mondale’s death marked something of an end of an era in US politics. He was described by a biographer as the last major American politician to resist the allure of television.

The death of the former senator, ambassador and Minnesota attorney general was announced in a statement on Monday from his family. No cause was cited.

Mondale followed the trail blazed by his political mentor, Hubert H Humphrey, from Minnesota politics to the US Senate and the vice-presidency, serving under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.

His own try for the White House, in 1984, came at the zenith of Ronald Reagan’s popularity. His candidacy made history, hammering a crack into the nation’s glass ceiling as he chose Geraldine Ferraro, then a US representative from New York, as his running mate – making Mondale the first major-party presidential nominee to put a woman on the ticket.

But his insistence on telling voters the truth hurt him badly, notably with his frank declaration that he would raise taxes to counter Reagan’s budget deficit. Reagan, by contrast, led his campaign with one of the great political jingles: “It’s morning again in America.”

Walter Mondale on the campaign trail in 1984.
Walter Mondale on the campaign trail in 1984. Photograph: John Duricka/AP

On election day, Mondale carried only his home state and the District of Columbia. The electoral vote was 525-13 for Reagan – the biggest landslide in the electoral college since Franklin Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon in 1936.

“One of my opponents called me a media Luddite. I wasn’t good at it,” Mondale recalled in a 2008 interview with the Guardian looking back on his overwhelming defeat. “Reagan, he was a genius at it. He could walk in front of those cameras and it would come out magic. I would walk in and it would be a root canal.”

Affectionately known as Fritz, Mondale was born on 5 January 1928, the son of a Methodist minister and a music teacher. He grew up in several small southern Minnesota towns.

Tributes poured in on Monday evening as news of his death emerged. In a statement, Jimmy Carter called him a “dear friend, who I consider the best vice-president in our country’s history”.

Walter Mondale in 1977 while serving as vice-president.
Walter Mondale in 1977 while serving as vice-president. Photograph: Granger/Rex/Shutterstock

“Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice-presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before and still exists today,” the former president said.

In a tweet, Barack Obama said Mondale “championed progressive causes and changed the role of VP”.

Mondale’s great-grandfather migrated to the US from Norway. The dourness of Norwegian culture stayed with the family – he recalled that in his childhood, kids were spanked for the sin of bragging about themselves.

He was only 20 when he served as a congressional district manager for Humphrey’s successful Senate campaign in 1948.

Mondale started his career in Washington in 1964, when he was appointed to the Senate to replace Humphrey, who had resigned to become vice-president to Lyndon Johnson. Mondale was elected to a full six-year term with about 54% of the vote in 1966, although Democrats lost the governorship and suffered other election setbacks.

In 1972, Mondale won another Senate term with nearly 57% of the vote.

His Senate career was marked by advocacy of social issues such as education, housing, migrant workers and child nutrition. Like Humphrey, he was an outspoken supporter of civil rights.

Mondale tested the waters for a presidential bid in 1974 but ultimately decided against it. “Basically I found I did not have the overwhelming desire to be president, which is essential for the kind of campaign that is required,” he said in November 1974.

In 1976, Carter chose Mondale as No 2 on his ticket and went on to unseat Gerald Ford.

As vice-president, Mondale had a close relationship with Carter. He was the first vice-president to occupy an office in the White House, rather than in a building across the street. Mondale traveled extensively on Carter’s behalf and advised him on domestic and foreign affairs.

Mondale smiles with his wife, Joan, in the Minnesota delegation during the Democratic national convention in 2004.
Mondale smiles with his wife, Joan, in the Minnesota delegation during the Democratic national convention in 2004. Photograph: Amy Sancetta/AP

Mondale never backed away from his liberal principles.

“I think that the country more than ever needs progressive values,” Mondale said in 1989.

After his White House years, Mondale served from 1993-96 as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Japan, fighting for US access to markets ranging from cars to cellular phones.

Despite his long and varied career in politics, it will be his epic defeat to Reagan, and his honorable but ultimately disastrous resistance to the small screen, for which he will be remembered. “I think, you know, I’ve never really warmed up to television,” he once said. “In fairness to television, it never really warmed up to me.”

FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, file photo, Mondale onstage with Carter during a celebration of Mondale’s 90th birthday on 13 January 2018, at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota’s campus, in Minneapolis.
Mondale onstage with Carter during a celebration of Mondale’s 90th birthday on 13 January 2018, at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota’s campus, in Minneapolis. Photograph: Anthony Souffle/AP

In his Guardian interview, Mondale recalled that his campaign staff in the 1984 race had tried hard to drag him into the TV era. They pleaded with him to change his hairstyle and his smile to charm more on camera.

“I didn’t like it, and I told them so,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Look, I’m all I’ve got. I can’t be someone I’m not.’”