A Conversation with Walter Mondale
From Weyerhaeuser to the White House
WHEN WALTER MONDALE arrived at Macalester College in the fall of 1946, he was an 18-year-old farm boy from Elmore, Minn., who hoped to continue the football heroics that had earned him the nickname “Crazy Legs.” But after the slightly built running back got a glimpse of the behemoths drilling on Mac’s football field, he changed his plans. “They were so big,” Mondale recalls with a laugh. “I took one look at the size of those guys and went out for debate.
“That turned out to be a pretty good decision. I met a lot of people there who were political. They were thinking about what we could do to save the world.”
Thus began a long and rewarding association between Macalester College and one of its most famous alumni, a Minnesota icon who would go on to become Minnesota’s Attorney General, a U.S. Senator, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Vice President under President Jimmy Carter, and, in 1984, the national standard bearer of the Democratic Party. Mondale would win only his home state that year, losing in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, who won a second term.
Yet Mondale, who turned 89 in January, has remained an influential figure, both at home and on the national scene, closely connected to Democratic Party leaders and to former Republican colleagues alike. He has also maintained a strong relationship with Macalester College, despite having transferred to the University of Minnesota his junior year because of financial challenges.
Mondale, who was listed in the Macalester yearbook by his middle name, Frederick, preferred to be called by the more approachable nickname that his friends still use today: Fritz. “That was the name that worked best for me,” he says. “Frederick and Walter were too stuffy.”
Despite his relatively brief tenure on campus, it was at Mac that Mondale first developed many of the ideas and ideals that would shape his life. The college also was where he first met people who would become important mentors in his political career, especially Hubert H. Humphrey, a former Macalester political science professor who was mayor of Minneapolis in the late 1940s, and who, along with Mondale, would be at the forefront of many political and social causes.
We asked Mondale to sit down with us for an extensive interview, around the time the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, was assuming office. We asked Mondale about his political career, his memories of Macalester, and his thoughts on the current situation of the country and the world.
We met him in his 20th floor offices at Dorsey & Whitney in downtown Minneapolis. Mondale is a retired partner with the firm, where he still uses the official chairs he sat on in the White House and Senate and where his windows overlook Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Photos of Mondale with world leaders, presidents, and old friends fill one wall; a large, faded photo of delegates celebrating his nomination at the 1984 Democratic Convention hangs near his desk. But the “place of honor,” he says, pointing to a framed document, is occupied by a 2014 Macalester College proclamation naming the school’s newly expanded art building the Joan Adams Mondale Hall of Studio Art.
Joan Adams Mondale ’52 was a daughter of longtime Macalester chaplain Rev. John Maxwell Adams, who married Fritz and Joan in 1955. The wedding took place two days after Christmas in the old student center, amidst a temporary arbor of 100 Christmas trees collected from tree lots around the campus. Theirs was a whirlwind courtship that began when Joan’s brother-in-law, Bill Canby, a University of Minnesota law school classmate of Mondale’s, suggested that Mondale ask Joan on a date.
Mondale had left Macalester in 1948, just as his future wife was arriving. The pair proved to have a lot in common, however, including the college. Their first date was a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where Joan worked as tour guide after graduating from Macalester in 1952.
What was your first date like?
One day my friend, Bill Canby (later a judge), said, “I suppose you wouldn’t want to go out with my sister-in-law.” And I said, “Sure. Let’s give it a try.” That’s how we got started. I remember being around Joan, and I thought something might happen. I was very interested in her. I thought, she’s a very appealing, beautiful girl, but she’s also serious and responsible, and she was a preacher’s kid—like I was. And she was an active Democrat, and felt strongly about it. So we had a lot of similarities, already, in our lives. And so… we just started. It was very fast. I don’t know how to explain it. We just started talking, and within a very few days, it was clear we were serious. I don’t think we had any long-term plan. About 60 days later, we went somewhere and I asked her. And she said, “Yes. Why, yes.” No one asked if we knew what we were doing. People had a feeling it was going to last. So we were on our way, and we got married in the Macalester Student Union, and her dad, who was the chaplain, officiated. It was very nice.
What did you take away from your two years at Macalester?
Well, I’m a fired-up oldster these days, but I really got my intellectual juices running back there. We had wonderful professors. I had a great time, and I loved the courses I was taking. I had a lot of friends at
Macalester. And that was where I started—where I met [Hubert] Humphrey, because Dorothy Jacobson, my professor of political science, encouraged me to attend a couple of events where Humphrey was going to speak. This was when he was mayor of Minneapolis. I became more committed to progressive ideals, better educated about why they were important. I started to get a glimmer of history and of what people can do when they work together. And I started to wake up—like young men and women hopefully are doing right now at college. Macalester tried to make us into people who were trained, who knew what we were doing, who tried to be a part of, in my case, progressive forces in our community and country. And I got an excitement about the decency of public policy that has stuck with me ever since. I still remember the warm personal connections I made there. You know, [Charles] Turck was a great president. He helped all of us. (Charles Turck, president of Macalester from 1939 to 1958, emphasized an international approach to higher education, recruited international students, fostered a sense of global connection, and raised the United Nations flag on campus, which still flies today).
Why did you choose to attend Macalester?
One of my older brothers, Pete, was at Macalester and he urged me to go. My mom and dad wanted us to have a religious education, so they wanted me to go, too. So I applied to Macalester. I don’t know what happened, but I got in.
Did you have to work while you were at Macalester?
Oh, yes. I waited tables at a little place near campus called the Dutch Oven. I think I got paid about 30 cents an hour. It worked out all right until I got the customers arguing over politics.
The owner came to me one day and said he had to let me go. “We can’t conduct any business in here because you’ve got everyone fighting with each other,” he said. Waiting tables may not have been the best career choice for me.
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Mondale, whose parents made it through the Depression running a truck garden, was unable to pay his tuition by the end of his sophomore year. He left Macalester and embarked on a new career in which his propensity to argue over politics proved to be an asset.
By 1948, Mondale’s mentor, Hubert Humphrey, was running for the U.S. Senate and had become a rising national political star after leading the fight to seat racially balanced delegations at the Democratic National Convention—one of the Civil Rights Movement’s first major wins. Mondale became an organizer for Minnesota’s new Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, traveling the state and attending meetings to whip up support for the party.
So leaving Macalester put you to work in the political trenches.
Well, I was going to save the world, you know. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know what I was going to do from day to day. But I had to get out there. And in a strange way, that really built my career because I met the leaders in all these communities. They saw me trying to build the Democratic Party. I did things that Humphrey wanted me to do, and Gene McCarthy and Orville Freeman (later, as governor, Freeman would appoint Mondale to be Minnesota’s attorney general, thus launching his decades of public service.) I made my name with those people, and they stuck with me my whole public career. We were down in Fairmont at a Farm Bureau meeting and Humphrey took me aside and said, “I like what you’re doing. Let’s work together. We can make a big difference.” It was a nice pat on the back, and it meant a lot to me—made me feel great. He was like a father to me. Hubert helped me understand the joy and ebullience of public life, about touching people and getting them involved in reforms, about dealing kindly with your adversaries.
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Given that background, Mondale, like many Democrats, is mystified by Donald Trump. He watched the new president’s inauguration with alarm, saying Trump’s inaugural address was “the worst 20-minute speech” he could ever recall hearing, disrespectful to both major parties and to previous presidents, including his old boss, Jimmy Carter. “Ignorance, anger, divisiveness—it was all there.”
How do you think the Democrats should respond to Trump?
One of the really distressing things is that I don’t know what makes Trump tick. I don’t know what he thinks is important. I don’t know who he is. When I was in the Senate, I always thought the benefit of the doubt should go to the President. It’s his government. I still feel that way. But when you get these right-wing ideologues that are going to blow up their departments—and he’s put in several of those— then I think we should fight him. I spent my whole life putting this country on the road toward social justice, civil rights, better education, better health care, environmental protection. It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve won some of those fights. As I see Trump’s nominees, they’re going to disestablish everything of this sort that America has done over the past 70 years and create a different nation, and I just don’t think we can let that happen. So we need to really step up to the plate and have the debate. And, you know, the way you get debate in America, real debate, I found as a senator, is to use the Senate Rules to insist upon a thorough debate and deny a vote on a main issue such as a confirmation until you’ve had a thorough hearing of the issues. So the public can see what the hell’s going on and what has happened. We’ve got to fight back. If you just let this stuff go unchallenged, we could slip into a kind of police state. I don’t know that we’re going there; I hope we’re not. Let me say I think we’re way short of that. As bad as this is, I’m not talking about impeachment, I’m talking about accountability. I think the Congress has to arouse itself and make certain that the President is held to account. I mean, you’ve got some people who’ve been nominated for cabinet positions who have yet to produce their required records. Well, I’d say, “You produce them or you’re not going to get this position.” But when you say there’s an alternative to the truth, when you say the truth is situational, that’s how you build a police state. The truth is the fundamental principle that allows people of different beliefs to somehow work together. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. And that’s what we’re coming up against now.
What do you think of the allegations of Russian influence in the election?
I think that’s about as tough as it can get. We need to know what really happened there. We need to get the [intelligence] agencies to tell us what went on in order to have that information to conduct a debate. The truth is what we need now—full disclosure. Secret operations from a foreign country in our society? We have a right to know what happened, who did it, and the rest. Then we’ll use the laws to make certain it never happens again. I hope that the Republicans who are expressing doubts about it, like [Senator] John McCain and others, will help lead us toward a better set of rules that makes it clear we’re not going to allow this. Putin kills people. He stomps on civil liberties. He’s been very aggressive in reclaiming countries that were thought to be independent. And he’s trying to unravel the whole Western system of alliances and our commitment to decency and social justice. I’m not sure what motivates Trump there. I’d like to see his tax returns. And I’d like to see what kind of deals he has cut with people in Russia.
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Looking back on his career, Mondale points with pride to some of the many accomplishments that made him a progressive political leader of his time. As Minnesota’s attorney general, he supported the 1963 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, which resulted in a ruling requiring the states to provide public attorneys for indigent defendants. In the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1964 to 1976, he championed fair housing, desegregation, and voting rights laws that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement. He also served on a Senate committee that reined in the behavior of U.S. intelligence agencies, earning him a place of honor on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”
I remember when the list came out and I was talking about it with Hubert in the Senate cloakroom. I was razzing him: “Why aren’t you on the list?” But here’s two fellas from Macalester, talking about Nixon’s enemies. I was Number 3 on the list. I think Hubert was a little perplexed that he wasn’t on it.
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As Vice President under President Jimmy Carter, Mondale helped model a more fully involved role for the vice presidency and championed human rights. Later he served as U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton and, in 2002, picked up the Democratic banner of Sen. Paul Wellstone, after the senator died in a plane crash just 10 days before the election. Mondale suffered a narrow defeat that fall to Republican Norm Coleman, but his brief candidacy reflected his status as a revered elder statesman. Through it all, Joan Mondale continued her service to Macalester and the arts community, and her husband continued carrying out the ideals he acquired at Macalester.
Why did Macalester have such a profound impact on your life?
I started to come alive at Macalester. Those special professors of history and political science helped me find out what was going on in the world, shaped my views. My relationship with Macalester has remained strong all these years, through many different presidents of the college. It has been a wonderful community for training and supporting an educated citizenry. You know, I’ve got my liberal views, and several people there don’t agree with me on anything. But we have always had an agreement to be respectful and to argue those issues out without getting angry—well, sometimes you get angry—but without splitting up as a community. That’s what you want. I think Macalester has been one of the most important experiences and influences in my life. And I think that thousands of people who have gone there over the years would agree. The opinions they shaped there may be different, but there’s something about the civility and the excitement, the ideas, the growing respect for learning, for reading and trying to move your understanding about issues forward.
You’ve spoken often to students at Macalester. What is your message?
Yes, I’ve talked at Macalester many, many times, in different circumstances. But I’ll bet you basic to all those speeches was a fundamental commitment to democracy, the law, and social justice— what I find are the most important rules in living life. I really settled down and learned to respect them, and to be educated about them, at Macalester. So for me, it’s still, “Dear old Macalester, ever the same.”
St. Paul writer NICK COLEMAN was a longtime reporter and columnist for both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune.