Walter Mondale, US vice-president under Carter trounced by Reagan for the White House – obituary

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Walter Mondale at President Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Ball in 1977 - Mikki Ansin/Getty Images
Walter Mondale at President Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Ball in 1977 - Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

Walter Mondale, who has died aged 93, served four years as Democratic vice-president under Jimmy Carter and later ran in the 1984 presidential race, only to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan.

The warm affection Americans had for Mondale, a courteous and likeable liberal who listed reading Shakespeare as one of his favourite hobbies, was never reflected in support at the polls. In the 1984 presidential race, burdened with a tax-raising manifesto and a vice presidential candidate – Geraldine Ferraro – whose private financial affairs came to dominate the headlines, he won only his home state and the District of Columbia.

Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, at a rally in Portland, Oregon in 1984 - Jack Smith/AP
Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, at a rally in Portland, Oregon in 1984 - Jack Smith/AP

So devastating was the loss to his party that it led to the emergence of the “New Democrats” – the American equivalent of New Labour – as centrists such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore seized control from the old-style liberals. Perhaps Mondale’s most lasting contribution to politics was his catchphrase “Where’s the Beef?” The slogan, borrowed from a burger advert, became a cliché through overuse by politicians.

Walter Frederick “Fritz” Mondale was born on January 5 1928 at Ceylon, Minnesota, to Theodore Sigvaard Mondale and Claribel, née Cowan. His father, a Methodist minister, had Norwegian ancestry; his mother was of Scottish and English descent.

After attending public schools in the small towns of south Minnesota, then at Macalester College in St Paul, Mondale took a degree in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1951.

Having no money to pay his way through law school, Mondale enlisted in the US Army in part to take advantage of the GI Bill. He served two years at Fort Knox as a corporal during the Korean War, then took a Law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1956 and began to practise law in Minneapolis.

Mondale with his wife Joan (to left) with President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn (1977) - Peter Bregg/ AP
Mondale with his wife Joan (to left) with President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn (1977) - Peter Bregg/ AP

Mondale had been involved in national politics since his time in college. In 1948, aged 20, he had helped to organise Hubert Humphrey’s successful run for the Senate. In 1960, aged just 32, he was appointed attorney general of Minnesota by Governor Orville Freeman after successfully managing the governor’s election campaign. He spent two terms as attorney general and also served as a member of the President’s Consumer Advisory Council from 1960 to 1964.

In 1964, Mondale was appointed by Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag to the Senate to fill the vacancy caused when Hubert Humphrey gave up his seat on being elected to the White House with Lyndon Johnson. In 1966, Mondale defeated the Republican candidate Robert Forsythe to hold the seat by 54 per cent to 45 per cent. He was re-elected in 1972 by a greater margin.

During his years as a senator, Mondale served on the Finance, the Labour and Public Welfare, Budget and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committees and made his name as a campaigner for equal rights as chairman of the Select Committee on Equal Education Opportunity. In 1975 he published The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency.

When Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, he chose Mondale as his running mate. Mondale was the first vice president to reside at the official vice-presidential residence, Number One, Observatory Circle, and the first to have his own office at the White House.

During his four years in office he travelled extensively at home and abroad as a “troubleshooter” for the administration.

President Reagan and Walter Mondale shake hands before an election debate in 1984: Reagan taunted Mondale saying that he would not hold his 'youth and inexperience against him' - Joe Marquette/ Corbis
President Reagan and Walter Mondale shake hands before an election debate in 1984: Reagan taunted Mondale saying that he would not hold his 'youth and inexperience against him' - Joe Marquette/ Corbis

Carter and Mondale were renominated at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but lost to Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush in the subsequent presidential election. Afterwards, Mondale returned to his Minnesota law practice, from which he emerged in 1984 after winning the presidential nomination.

Following his defeat, Mondale returned again to private law practice and retired from frontline politics. Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, he served as Ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, chaired a bipartisan group to study campaign finance reform, and was Clinton’s special envoy to Indonesia in 1998.

Mondale with his wife Joan at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston - Amy Sancetta/ AP
Mondale with his wife Joan at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston - Amy Sancetta/ AP

In 2002 Mondale attempted to make a political comeback after replacing the Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, who had been killed in a plane crash. By enlisting a veteran with a reputation for decency the Democrats hoped to hang on to the seat and, in the process, keep their one-vote majority on Capitol Hill. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan had taunted Mondale for his lesser years, saying that he would not hold his “youth and inexperience against him”, and it was hoped that Mondale, now aged 74, could return the compliment to his relatively youthful Republican challenger Norm Coleman.

But Mondale proved no better at garnering votes aged 74 than he had aged 56. Though he began with an eight-point lead, in the end Coleman slipped through to defeat him by 50 per cent to 48 per cent.

Mondale then returned to his legal practice and later took up a part-time teaching position at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Mondale married, in 1955, Joan Adams, who died in 2014. They had two sons and a daughter who died of brain cancer in 2011.

Walter Mondale, born January 5 1928, died April 19 2021

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