In many ways, former Vice President Walter Mondale, who died April 19 at the age of 93, was the ideal political leader. He was humble. He was honest. And he cared deeply about making life better for all Americans. Walter Mondale was an unapologetic liberal, who believed that government, in the right hands, could be a force for advancing this country toward its ideals of liberty and justice for all. He proved that time and again through his efforts in high office.
While representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, he passed legislation we know today as the Fair Housing Act, which was designed to end the legacy of discrimination in housing that had been rampant in the U.S. right into the 1970s. For decades, that legacy of discrimination had denied millions of people of color from accessing better quality housing, safer communities, and superior schools for their children. According to his family, it was one of his proudest accomplishments.
He was born the son of a Methodist preacher from southwestern Minnesota, and he incorporated solidly Midwestern values into his life and his service. In an era in which politicians seem to score points through vitriol, dishonesty, and disrespect of their opponents, Walter Mondale’s kindness and basic decency harkens back to a time in America to which many of us long to return.
Mr. Mondale rose in the political ranks at a time when America still believed in itself and that reasonable people could find a path to progress for the country. It was the ideal environment for a hard-working politician who was willing to wield the levers of government to make that happen. During his time in the Senate, Mr. Mondale played key roles in advancing legislation to advance civil rights, protect the environment, and provide opportunity for those who needed a helping hand.
Mr. Mondale wasn’t known for his powerful oratory, like his early mentor, Hubert Humphrey. He was known for his work ethic and his sound and careful judgment, qualities that undoubtedly appealed to Jimmy Carter when he selected Mondale to serve as his Vice President.
In doing so, Mr. Mondale remade that office into a kind of co-presidency, a model that most subsequent presidents have followed since. Mr. Mondale was so engaged in the decision-making process of the Carter administration, that he was the Democrats’ natural pick for president in 1984, to challenge incumbent Ronald Reagan. Mr. Mondale was eminently qualified for the office and would have made an outstanding president, but by then the country had changed. Ronald Reagan had made government the enemy, and a decent and honest man who lacked the pizzazz of a former movie star had little chance to win the highest office in the land.
Mondale’s honesty was on display during his 1984 convention speech, when he stated that he would raise taxes if elected. He said Reagan would do the same— which was true— but Reagan wouldn’t admit it. The voters showed they preferred Reagan’s happy talk to straight talk, and it sent Mr. Mondale back to Minnesota after his historic landslide loss.
President Reagan’s two terms marked a turning point for American politics, in which both major parties moved for a time to the right. By the time Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the Democrats had become a party that looked an awful lot like mainstream Republicans of the 1960s and 70s, with support for free trade, welfare reform, and a lock-‘em-up and throw away the key attitude toward law enforcement that filled America’s prisons to overflowing, destroying many families of color in process.
But Mr. Mondale remained true to his roots and never forgot the fight for justice and equality in America. He remained active and involved in political efforts throughout his remaining yeas and served as a mentor to many future leaders along the way, including both of Minnesota’s current U.S. Senators.
Mr. Mondale made a tremendous mark on our country. It’s a better place for the time he spent here. And that, ultimately, is the best thing that could be said of any political leader. He will be sorely missed.
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