Heading into the 1976 election season, Mondale was expected to join a wide-open Democratic field in seeking the presidency. He opted out but ended up being chosen by Jimmy Carter as his running mate, the so-called “Fritz and Grits ticket.” They eked out a narrow win over President Gerald Ford and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in November.
At the time, much was made of the fact that Carter clearly wanted Mondale’s counsel and presence, something that definitely had not been true of past presidents — Mondale even had his own office in the White House. Mondale’s wife, Joan, also attained more prominence than typical for a “second lady.”
“Our relationship in the White House,” Mondale was quoted as saying in his Senate website biography, “held up under the searing pressure of that place because we entered our offices understanding — perhaps for the first time in the history of those offices — that each of us could do a better job if we maintained the trust of the other. And for four years, that trust endured.”
As a former senator, Mondale also spent much of his time fighting for the president’s legislative priorities on the Hill. He also was a key participant in the negotiations between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt that led to those two longtime enemies signing the historic Camp David Accords.
He also worked to end the refugee crisis that had engulfed Southeast Asia in the wake of decades of war and oppression. “Let us honor the moral principles we inherit,” Mondale told a United Nations conference on the refugees in July 1979. “Let us do something meaningful — something profound — to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.“
Still, Carter’s popularity steadily eroded during his presidency. After Carter was routed by Reagan in November 1980, Mondale was widely considered the Democratic front-runner for 1984 and he entered the race Feb. 21, 1983.
In hindsight, it may seem like the Democrats were doomed to be crushed by Reagan in 1984 but that was not clear at that time. Reagan’s approval rating had dipped to 35 percent in January 1983 and was still south of 50 percent during 1984. In late July, James Reston wrote in the New York Times that Mondale — having just made history by choosing Ferraro — was holding a slight lead over Reagan and seeking to consolidate it by bringing in new voters.
“On the outcome of this mobilization struggle may depend victory or defeat a hundred days from now in November,” Reston wrote.
Defeat it was — a lopsided one.
He had gained the nomination by beating back a surprisingly strong challenge from Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, a relative newcomer to the national stage. Just when it looked like he might coast to victory, Mondale had lost to Hart in New Hampshire. “Hart became the unofficial candidate of the ‘not-Mondale‘ Democrats — voters who were younger, more educated, more affluent, whiter, and disenchanted with the orthodoxies of the Democratic Party,“ wrote Jeff Greenfield in 2007.
As the primary season wore on, it became a three-man battle, with Mondale battling Hart and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the nation’s first prominent African American candidate. Mondale, who was perceived as the establishment candidate, may not have had the most enthusiastic supporters of the three, but ultimately he had the most delegates.
“Vice President Walter Mondale,” Hart said of him Monday night, “was a statesman before he was a politician. He represented the best qualities of the Democratic Party — largeness of vision, concern for those in need, the national interest before special interests, and anticipation of the future.”
On July 12, 1984, Mondale made history by announcing he had selected Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from New York, as his running mate. He said: ”Our founders said in the Constitution, ‘We the people’ — not just the rich, or men, or white, but all of us.” It was reported that he actively sought to make history with this selection, having also considered African-Americans and at least one Hispanic, among other candidates.
Enthusiasm greeted the choice of Ferraro as the first woman on a major party ticket, though her selection became something of a liability, when issues came up during the campaign about her husband’s finances.
Alluding to a then-popular hamburger ad, Mondale had used the phrase “Where’s the beef?” during the primary season to mock Hart as a pretty face with lightweight policies but efforts to transfer that slogan to Reagan did not take. Reagan’s team countered with ads declaring a rebirth of American greatness, saying it was “Morning Again in America.” The Republicans also unleashed “Fritzbusters,” seemingly omnipresent young campaigners making use of the then-popular “Ghostbusters” theme. And there was simply no getting around his connection to the Carter administration.
“It wasn’t malaise we suffered from,” Jeane Kirkpatrick said in her memorable GOP convention speech, “it was Jimmy Carter — and Walter Mondale.”
For his part, when he tried to pin down Reagan on specific issues in their debates, Mondale came off as wonky and awkward. Reagan, then a feisty 73, even zinged Mondale about his age: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Mondale later commented: “Reagan was promising them ‘Morning in America,’ and I was promising a root canal.”
The 1984 results were a landslide of epic proportion, even more lopsided than the defeats suffered by Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972. Mondale carried only Minnesota (barely) and the District of Columbia, losing by 525 electoral votes to 13. Reagan drew almost 17 million votes more than Mondale, and only in seven states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New York, Wisconsin) was the Democrat’s margin of defeat less than 10 percentage points.
“Mondale’s fall campaign was as doomed as McGovern’s 12 years earlier,” wrote Bruce Miroff in “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party.“
Miroff added: “Riding an upsurge in popularity and a wave of nationalism, Reagan’s team devised a feel-good theme for the president that easily routed the drab Mondale.”
After 1984, Mondale did not attempt a comeback, though he stayed on the public stage with time at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and then, under President Bill Clinton, as ambassador to Japan. In 1998, he served as Clinton’s special envoy to Indonesia.
Under tragic circumstances, Mondale did jump back into the electoral fray in 2002. Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter and five other people were killed in a crash of his campaign plane Oct. 25.
Members of Wellstone’s campaign, including his son, recruited the former senator to take Wellstone’s place on the Minnesota ballot, but Mondale had inherited a strong opponent in Republican Norm Coleman, and the campaign-style feel of Wellstone’s televised memorial damaged the standing of the state’s Democrats. Less than two weeks later, Coleman prevailed by 3 percentage points; it was Mondale’s first defeat in Minnesota since he lost out for class president as a high school senior.
Mondale’s wife of almost 60 years, Joan Adams Mondale, died in February 2014. His daughter Eleanor, a talk-show host, died in 2011 at the age of 51.
“Vice President Mondale was so generous with his wit and wisdom over the years,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement Monday night. “I was able to speak with him just a few days ago and thank him for his service and his steadfastness.”