It may seem strange, but sometime after learning of the death of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, I found myself thinking about elephants, and not because a pachyderm is the symbol of Fritz Mondale’s lifelong opposition — the Republican Party. And not because elephants are descendants of huge creatures from the dinosaur era, although younger readers might view folks like Mondale and me dinosaurs because of our age and progressive ideals; it can be argued that Joe Biden’s election as president, and his address to Congress Wednesday evening, show that such principles are very much alive in America.
No, I have thought about my friend, former boss and mentor Fritz Mondale and elephants together for another reason. As environmental activist and wildlife advocate Amelia Meyer has written:
“The elephant’s capacity for sadness and grief is truly unique amongst members of the animal world. … Because elephants live in such close-knit herds and live for about as long as humans do (approximately 70 years), they form strong bonds with those around them. When these ones die, the rest of the herd mourns that death.”
Those who worked for and with Fritz Mondale in the Senate, the White House, in political campaigns — including his crushing defeat for president in 1984 — formed strong bonds with him, and with one another. To a person, we admired him, respected him, were inspired by him. Dare I say it, we loved him.
I first paid attention to Sen. Walter Mondale from a distance. I lived and worked in California, and was active in politics in my home state as a college student. Although he was from Minnesota, Mondale was one of those leaders who one quickly realized deserved our attention.
A decade or so later, when I was a new Capitol Hill aide, my boss, newly elected Rep. Norm Mineta of San Jose and I had drinks with Sen. Mondale after some sort of political event at the Capitol Hilton. I was immediately struck by his friendliness, his immediate rapport with Norm, and his unpretentiousness toward me — a mere staff guy.
I was an early contributor to, and volunteer in, Jimmy Carter’s long-shot campaign for the presidency in 1976. I served as Carter’s “whip” of the California delegation to the national convention in New York City that summer. I was thrilled when Carter announced his selection of Walter Mondale as his running mate, I worked as field coordinator of the winning Carter/Mondale campaign in California that fall.
It was then my good fortune to become a part of the White House staff, where my interactions with the vice president and his staff were numerous. As we experienced the ups and downs of our term in office, and the very tough 1980 reelection campaign, I found myself spending more and more time with Mondale — working on legislation, tending to politics, traveling with him, spending both casual as well as more official times at the vice president’s residence.
As has been noted in every article since Mondale’s passing, he and Jimmy Carter transformed the concept of the veep. Mondale’s office was in the West Wing. He was Carter’s partner on every matter that ended up in the president’s inbox. They got along splendidly, as did their respective staffs. We became a herd.
Mondale was a central factor in many of our legislative and other initiatives — the Panama Canal treaties, normalization of relations with China, national energy policy, judicial appointments, Middle East peace, civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, education, and so much more
Many of us signed up with Mondale’s own presidential bid. Our first meeting to discuss strategy for a 1984 campaign occurred in early January of 1981, even before Ronald Reagan was sworn in. I took on many assignments over the next four years, working my butt off in our effort to unseat the 40th president. Alas, it was not to be.
We all did our best, but President Reagan was not a candidate who could have been beaten in 1984. And we experienced the searing disappointment of the landslide defeat together. Mondale, months later, ran into his friend of many decades, George McGovern, himself a casualty of a wipeout in the 1972 election. Mondale asked, “So, George, how long does it take to get over it?” McGovern replied, “I’ll let you know.”
I have hundreds of memories about those times, and of experiencing Walter Mondale’s political savvy, intelligence, good humor and personal warmth. One in particular is worth noting, which I remember because it involved my wife:
During the interregnum between our loss in 1980 and the launch of Mondale’s 1984 campaign, I frequently traveled with him — usually with two or three other aides. But on one trip, it was just the two of us — Iowa City, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco.
He gave a speech the last morning at the Hyatt Embarcadero, and we decided to walk back to the St. Francis Hotel to pick up our bags, check out, and drive to SFO. As we were approaching the St. Francis, I said in an exasperated tone, “Oh, shit!” To which he naturally responded, “What’s wrong?”
I replied, “I forgot to get Shari a gift. I always try to bring something back to her when I travel. I haven’t bought anything yet.”
“Shower caps,” Mondale replied straight-faced. “I always bring back the hotel shower caps for Joan. She loves ’em.”
I tried it. Without the success he claimed.
Before he passed, the former vice president wrote a note to those of us who had worked for him: He said,
Well, my time has come. I am eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor. Before I go I wanted to let you know how much you mean to me. Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side!
Together we have accomplished so much and I know you will keep up the good fight.
Joe in the White House certainly helps.
I always knew it would be okay if I arrived some place and was greeted by one of you!
My best to all of you
It is telling that Fritz also thought of us as a herd.