Walter Mondale (1928-2021)

Walter Fredrick Mondale
Born – January 5, 1928
Died – April 19, 2021
Minnesota Attorney General
United States Senator
Vice President of the United States
U.S. Ambassador to Japan

Memorial services – Dates to be determined

There are an unlimited number of excellent biographical writings about Walter Mondale, this is not one of them. The following is about how his life affected mine and to some extent how my life affected his.

It is June 16, 1964, and I am sitting in the Northrop Memorial Auditorium for the University of Minnesota Law School graduation.

Other than studying for the bar exam I have no future plans. No law firm is waiting for me to join.

The speaker for the evening is Minnesota Attorney General Walter F. Mondale. He seems like an interesting person and I decide on the spot to apply for a job in his office.

A day or two later I sent a letter seeking a position in Mondale’s office. Within days, I received a letter turning down my application. I joined a small group of law review students who were studying for the bar.

I had been involved in student politics at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in both undergrad and while at the law school, but I had never been involved in campaigns for public office. I decided to give it a try.

One of my law school professors referred me to the office of Congressman Don Fraser from the 5th congressional district of Minnesota (Minneapolis). His campaign manager was his wife Arvonne. My first assignment as a volunteer was to spend days in Minneapolis City Hall, hand copying voter registration records.

As a “reward” Arvonne sent me to represent the 5th district at a meeting of the Johnson/Humphrey campaign. The statewide campaign chair was Attorney General Walter Mondale. Mondale noted in his comments that he did not have anyone assigned as field director in the 3rd congressional district (suburbs of Minneapolis). When the meeting was over, I went up to Mondale and said, “If I go out and run the 3rd congressional district will you give me a job in your Attorney General office when the election is over?” He must have been desperate because he said “yes”, as long as I passed the bar.

On August 10, 1964 I became the Johnson/Humphrey field director in the 3rd congressional district. I shared an office with the Democratic candidate for Congress, Richard Parish. Parish lost to the incumbent, a Republican, Clark McGregor, 57% to 43%.

Having passed the bar exam, I called Mondale’s office after the November 3, 1964 election. I spoke to the Deputy Attorney General who confirmed my agreement with Mondale. The deputy called me back and told me to come to the office on the following Monday.

On November 9, 1964, I went to the AG’s office and was sworn in as a Special Assistant Attorney General.

From that day, until Mondale went to Washington, DC to be sworn in as a United States Senator on December 30, 1964, I served as his driver and ran various errands.

I continued working in the office of the new Attorney General Robert Mattson, a well-known Minneapolis lawyer who was appointed to the office to complete the term for which Mondale has been elected.

In 1966, Mondale had to stand for re-election to the Senate and in July I was invited to join his re-election campaign which was run by Warren Spannaus. I was engaged mainly in scheduling and anything else Spannaus wanted me to do. (Spannaus was himself elected as Minnesota’s Attorney General in 1970.)

When the campaign was over, Mondale invited me to join his Washington Senate office and on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1966 Carol and I arrived in Washington—about five days ahead of our furniture.

In 1968, Mondale and Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma became co-chairmen of United Democrats for Humphrey. Mondale sent me to Chicago to set up the Humphrey operation at the International Amphitheater where the convention was to be held.

When the convention was over, Mondale told me to come back to the Senate
Office. He was irritated about something that had happened. I can’t recall what it was that ticked him off, but I know it was not something that I did. I was disappointed because I wanted to finish the campaign. A short time later Mondale relented, and I moved to the Humphrey Campaign office in downtown Washington to run the schedule and advance operation.

In those days, the Chief of Staff in Senate offices was known as the Administrative Assistant. I did not have that role but rather I was engaged in a variety of administrative tasks including scheduling, through the tenure of two Administrative Assistants. In early 1971 when his then Administrative Assistant left the office, Mondale appointed me as his Administrative Assistant. I asked him, why now? I remember his reply, “The first four years of a Senator’s term are the Statesman years, now we are in the War years.”

In May of 1972, I moved back to Minnesota to run his re-election campaign with the intention of staying in Minnesota, which I did.

I stayed involved with Mondale often taking on various tasks in Minnesota because in those days, the state offices were not as well developed as they are today.

In late 1974, Mondale flirted with seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1976. It went so far as my setting out to rent an office in Washington, DC. I had talked to Madeleine Albright about joining our team but before she made up her mind, Mondale pulled out. Had he gone forward it is unlikely that he would have been selected as Jimmy Carter’s Vice-Presidential running mate.

After the 1976 election, Carter talked with Mondale about what his role would be. Carter liked what he heard and asked Mondale to prepare a memorandum. Up until then, the Vice President’s office was in the Executive Office building within the White House complex but across the driveway between the two buildings. Mondale’s memo did not include mention of moving the office.

A few weeks later Carter announced that Mondale would have an office in the White House. Carter issued two directives to his cabinet and staff: first, respond to a request from the Vice President as if it came from the President and, second, if anyone tried to undermine the Vice President, that person would be out of there.

Additionally, Dick Moe, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff would also be a direct player in the White House with the additional title of Assistant to the President. Two of Mondale’s senior staff, David Aaron and Bert Carp, were added to the staffs of the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council, respectively.

I was named as Legal Counsel to the Vice President and Deputy Chief of Staff.

Other than Mondale’s Executive Assistant Jim Johnson, who officed in a cubby which was part of the Vice President’s White House office, the Vice President’s staff had offices in the EOB along with the Vice President’s ceremonial office.

I had a small group of lawyers who worked with me on various day-to-day issues, but they also worked with the White House Counsel’s office on issues with which they had experience. For example, I served as counsel to Hugh Carter who was responsible for operations in the White House.

I also had responsibility to oversee the non-policy operations in the office e.g., scheduling and advance. The policy sides of the office reported to Dick Moe.

The Mondales were the first Vice-presidential family to live in the house that is now known as the Vice-President’s Residence. The house had been the home of the Chief of Naval Operations. It was available to Vice President Rockefeller and while they did some remodeling, the Rockefellers never spent a night there.

While I did a few things related to the house it was primarily the responsibility of Joan Mondale’s Chief of Staff, Bess Abell.

The one responsibility I did have was to play Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at appropriate social events at the residence.

I only traveled overseas with the Vice President a handful of times, but one of those was his trip to Israel in June/July 1978. On that particular trip the Vice President invited 30+ heads of US Jewish organizations to join him. We used two planes and given the nature of those planes it was necessary to stop in the Azores to refuel.

I really did not have much to do on the trip other than play tourist. It was my first visit to Israel. One day, I received a message that the Vice President wanted to see me in his suite. I can’t remember who else was with him, but he told me that President Sadat had agreed to see him in Alexandria, Egypt. As far as I knew, that was not originally part of the trip. “We have a problem,” he said.

“The Jewish leaders who are traveling with us do not want to go to Egypt given the overall circumstances with Egypt.” Then he told me to figure it out.

I also realized that there were a number of Jews in the staff group, including me. After consulting with a few of my colleagues, I came up with a solution.

Mondale and his staff took one plane to Alexandria. (The Jewish staff members all said they wanted to go to Alexandria.) The Jewish leaders got on the second plane and flew to the Azores.

When Mondale left Egypt, he also flew to the Azores. Everyone on his plane who was not needed for the trip home deplaned. The Jewish leaders then boarded the Vice President’s plane and were briefed on the meeting on the way home by the Vice President. When we landed at Andrews Airbase the Jewish leaders were prepared to talk to their respective groups, fully describing the meeting with Sadat.

The meeting in Alexandria led to the Camp David Accords.

Toward the end of the administration, I agreed that Charles Krauthammer
could join the staff as a speech writer. Many years later when he was a prominent conservative columnist, he wrote the following: “Whenever people on my right want to attack me, they always refer to me as ‘Mondale speechwriter, Charles Krauthammer’ so I carried that the rest of my life, I carry it proudly.”

At the end of the administration Mondale said the following about the administration, “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace.”

With the administration over, Mondale decided to office at the Washington office of Winston and Strawn where his close, longtime friend John Riley was a partner. I managed the transition for 6 months and ended up at a small Washington law firm, Hill, Christopher, and Phillips, which eventually merged with a Pittsburgh law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.

Mondale decided to run for president in 1984. I was the Treasurer in the primary and general elections and the National Campaign Coordinator in the general election.

Mondale began the search for a running mate with Jim Johnson at his side and a team of lawyers that I put together to do the vetting. I remember the day I got a call from someone around Mondale, to go to Boston to gather the necessary information about Michael Dukakis, who was then Governor of Massachusetts. I hung out in a hotel while Jack Corrigan gathered the information. They did not want me hanging out at the governor’s office so no one would ask questions about why I was there.

Then one afternoon I got a call to go to New York to start the vetting of Congresswoman Gerry Ferraro. I flew to New York and took a cab to her house where I met with her and her husband, John Zaccaro.

As I met with them to begin gathering information, I recall Gerry said something about this whole effort not being serious. I remember my somewhat irritated remark, “If this were not for real do you think I would be wasting my time?” The rest is history.

For a variety of reasons that are certainly not important now, there was an unpleasant hullabaloo about the Ferraro nomination. Our team of lawyers were kept busy for days.

Ferraro was scheduled to give a speech at a hotel near Kennedy airport with the goal of putting the whole thing to rest. There were literally hundreds of people in the audience, primarily representatives of the media. There was a question from the Wall Street Journal and a couple of trivial questions and then silence. I remember turning to a friend from the Washington Post with whom I was standing at the back of the room and asking him why no one was asking questions. He turned to me and said, “everyone has decided it’s enough”.

It was official, Mondale had selected the first woman to run for Vice President of the United States.

As the 1984 campaign was winding down, it had been obvious for some time that Mondale was going to lose badly to Reagan. He sent me a message that he wanted to see me. His message was simple, “I cannot lose Minnesota.”

I used every resource I could lay my hands on, focusing primarily on Duluth and the Iron Range. Mondale won the state by 3,761 votes out of 2,068,967 total votes cast in the state.

After the campaign, Mondale joined the Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey & Whitney where his good friend Warren Spannaus, the former Attorney General of Minnesota, was a partner.

We stayed in touch on a pretty regular basis.

When Bill Clinton was elected president, he offered Mondale the position of U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Mondale accepted and on the day President-elect Clinton was set to announce Mondale’s position in an evening speech at Georgetown University, I got a call at 3:00 p.m. It was Mondale. He said, “I cannot go to Russia and I would like you to tell the Clinton folks.” I was shocked and said to him, “You know if you do this, your chances of being an ambassador are over. You won’t get another chance.” He said, “I know that”.

I knew the Clinton folks pretty well. I had spent the fall in Little Rock working on the campaign. So, I called Bruce Lindsey and told him what Mondale had told me. I think I explained to him why. Clinton obviously did not make the announcement that evening.

And then, unexpectedly, President Clinton appointed Mondale as our Ambassador to Japan and Mondale accepted. To this day, I think this is the most gracious thing that Clinton ever did.

Mondale served as Ambassador to Japan with distinction from 1993-1996. On several occasions Mondale invited my wife and I to visit but we never got around to it. Mondale then returned to Dorsey & Whitney.

In 2002, toward the end of his reelection campaign, Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone—who held Mondale’s old Senate seat—was killed in a plane crash. Mondale was asked by the Wellstone team to replace Wellstone. Mondale agreed and I set about raising some money for the campaign. Mondale was not elected, and he continued at Dorsey & Whitney.

Mondale remained active in the Democratic Party and began teaching part-time at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Mondale got great pleasure from his sons Ted and Bill. Ted was a member of the Minnesota Senate from 1991-1997 and held a number of public sector leadership positions prior to a successful career in the private sector. Bill was an Assistant Attorney General and then moved to the private sector. He is currently an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney.

In 2011, his daughter, Eleanor Mondale Poling died of brain cancer which she had battled for six years.

In 2014, Joan Adams Mondale, his wife and partner of 59 years died. When she was Second Lady of the United States, she became known as “Joan of Arts” for her work in the arts world.

For all of the years that Mondale was in public office I referred to him—even in private—as Attorney General, Senator, or Vice President; even through his run for president in 1984. Sometime after that, when I was still addressing him as Vice President, he turned to me one day and said, “Don’t you think it is time to call me ‘Fritz’?”, which I did thereafter.

Mondale came to Washington, DC in April 2019 for my 80th birthday party, at which he spoke. We sat at the same table and the number of people who came by to show their affection for Mondale made clear how beloved he was.

The last time I spoke to him was on April 9, 2021. He called to wish me a happy birthday and spoke/sang the Happy Birthday song.

On April 19, 2021, I received a call from Minneapolis at 7:21 p.m. letting me know that Mondale had died. He had been a part of my life for 57 years.


Joel Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus at St. Louis University, is the preeminent scholar on the Vice Presidency. He posted the following on Facebook on April 19th.

“Walter Mondale was one of the great public servants of his generation. He had a deep commitment to America’s highest ideals, including a belief that government could be a positive force in creating a more just and inclusive society which treated people from different demographic groups fairly and drew on the talents of all. He transformed the vice presidency and used his influence to open doors to those excluded and to save many whose lives were threatened. He was a skillful politician who conducted his public service with integrity, humility, decency, and good humor. He fought good fights and America is the beneficiary of his skill, his commitments and his character.”