Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Walter Mondale

Walter Fitzgerald Mondale was born January 5, 1928, in Ceylon, Minnesota. His father was a Methodist minister, and his mother was a music teacher. Both were politically conscious individuals who greatly admired President Franklin Roosevelt. As a young man, Mondale excelled in sports and developed an early interest in public service. He volunteered in the mayoral and senatorial campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and briefly attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, before pursuing a job in Washington, D.C. After a frustrating tenure as secretary of an organization called Students for Democratic Action (SDA), Mondale returned to his home state to finish school at the University of Minnesota. He graduated in 1951 and served in the military for two years afterwards. After he was discharged, he earned his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1956. He married Joan Adams on December 27, 1955.

Mondale practiced law in Minneapolis until 1960, at which point Governor Orville Freeman appointed him state attorney general. At the time of his appointment, he was the youngest state attorney general in the country. Four years later, he was appointed to finish the Senate term of Hubert Humphrey, who had been selected as President Lyndon Johnson's vice president. Mondale won election in his own right in 1966 and staunchly supported President Johnson's domestic and foreign policies, including the Vietnam War. Mondale later called his support of the war the biggest mistake of his career. By 1969, Mondale began to turn against the war and participated in legislation aimed at curtailing President Nixon's ability to prolong it. He voted to cease military actions in Cambodia and cosponsored the War Powers Act in 1973. Although he had a chance at the vice presidential nomination in 1972, he declined to joined McGovern's ill-fated campaign and instead focused on his successful reelection campaign.

In 1976, Mondale was considered a serious contender for the presidential nomination. Although he might have had a good chance at wresting the nomination from the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter of Georgia, he eventually decided that he had little desire to suffer through a grueling campaign when he "did not have the overwhelming desire to be President." In spite of Mondale's aversion to national campaigning, Carter offered him the vice presidency. As a northern liberal with Washington experience, Mondale was a perfect complement to Carter, a southerner who had won the nomination by campaigning as a Washington outsider. Mondale accepted the offer but made it clear he would not give up his Senate seat to accept an office that was largely ceremonial. Carter had similar thoughts on making the vice presidency a "substantive position." During the campaign, Mondale focused on economic issues and did well in a televised debate against Robert Dole, the Republican nominee for vice president. The Carter-Mondale ticket won in a close election.

Although many vice presidents had previously pursued a more substantial role in policy making, Mondale was unique in the fact that he actually achieved it. He had an office in the West Wing, assisted in the selection of cabinet and staff members, and his staff was closely integrated with the President's people. He had substantial access to President Carter and was frequently able to influence policy. He also did not hold the same kind of administrative positions over commissions and special programs that vice presidents were typically assigned. Mondale saw such functions as somewhat ceremonial and detrimental to the overall authority of the vice president and preferred a more general role.

Despite his position, Mondale sometimes found himself on the losing end of disagreements. He strongly opposed Carter's decision to deliver a highly negative speech on the Nation's "crisis of confidence" and opposed the shake-up of the cabinet that followed. As the 1980 elections approached, the public perception of the administration was of a confused administration unable to address problems as they arose. The flagging economy, the Iranian hostage crisis, and a litany of other troubles dragged down the Democratic ticket and allowed Republican Ronald Reagan to roll to a landslide victory.

After the 1980 election, Mondale was still a major voice in the Democratic Party although he held no elected office. In 1984, he successfully pursued the Democratic nomination for President, but won only 13 electoral votes as President Reagan won another resounding victory. After his defeat, Mondale retired to private life until President Bill Clinton selected him as ambassador to Japan in 1992. He served until 1996, when he again returned to private life. In October 2002, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was killed in an airplane crash while campaigning for reelection. With just days before the election, the Democratic Party chose Mondale to replace Wellstone on the ballot. However, the Republican candidate, Norm Coleman, defeated Mondale.

Mondale's main contribution to history is his lasting impact on the vice presidency. His considerable influence within the administration set precedents for the office and made him one of the more important vice presidents in terms of his impact on the office itself. Where many had sought wider influence, Mondale actually achieved it, and rightfully concluded at the end of his term that he had been "closer to a President than maybe any vice president in history."