The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics
By Walter Mondale with David Hage
(Scribner, 384 pages, $28)
Every career has a low point: a time when things go so badly that you begin to wonder, what am I doing in this line of work again? For me, that point came while I was serving as the Warren Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. On one particularly galling spring afternoon, I took to wandering the halls of the think tank’s old headquarters on Connecticut and K, muttering to myself, looking to the world like I’d just had a near miss with a Japanese bullet train. When concerned colleagues asked what was wrong, I half yelled, “I got stood up by Walter Mondale, that’s what!”
It was part of the research for my book on the vice presidents, The Warm Bucket Brigade. I’d set up an interview with Jimmy Carter’s veep only to have the rug yanked out from under me at the last minute as work demands from Dorsey & Whitney, his 800-pound gorilla of a law firm, proved more pressing. Eventually we rescheduled and I rediscovered my sense of purpose as a writer of words and phrases. But it was touch and go there. I nearly cried uncle to a man who has lost statewide elections in all 50 states.
As readers will see in Mondale’s memoirs, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics, that took determination and real hard work. The Carter-Mondale ticket lost 27 states and still squeaked out a victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. In 1980, they lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. In 1984, as the bomber-in-chief of a kamikaze Democratic ticket, Mondale managed to improve on that historically awful performance, but not quite enough.
In 1984, Mondale stood for a nuclear freeze, the unpopular and never ratified Equal Rights Amendment, and raising taxes. He picked a running mate with the personality of a salad shooter. Her husband had tax troubles and mob ties. And they still only managed to lose 49 states. In the final weeks, the Reagan campaign could have taken steps to win Mondale’s native Minnesota but decided it would be ungentlemanly to not at least let him have that much.
A lesser man might have conceded victory, but Mondale refused to let that small win stand. In 2002, Minnesota’s “magnificent progressive” Senator Paul Wellstone had been heading toward likely reelection when he died in a plane crash. Mondale agreed to jump into the race with 11 days to go but couldn’t really “launch the campaign immediately” because there was still the small matter of the Wellstone memorial.
“The story of that event…is now well known,” writes Mondale. “It drew a huge turnout: Bill and Hillary Clinton were there, as were Bob Dole and about half the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans.” In other words, this was not the best time for partisan speechmaking.
To Mondale’s chagrin, members of his party refused to take the hint. While the memorial “started off as a beautiful tribute to Paul and the people who died with him,” insists Mondale, “speech by speech it gradually began to take on a political tone, and by the end it had turned into an unintentional rally for Democrats.” As a result, “The Republicans who had come to honor Paul felt tricked and abused, and one by one they began to walk out.”
In the former vice president’s telling, they took a lot of voters with them as they left. Mondale neglects to relate that he called for the repeal of the Bush tax cuts in his debate with St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, though he does admit that “Even in Minnesota, the message of the unfettered market had a lot of resonance.” He admits that Coleman also managed to use his age against him, which would mark the second time the age issue stung him.
In the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984, the septuagenarian president did an expert bit of political jujitsu when he announced, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Nearly every American with a healthy sense of humor laughed at that line, Mondale perhaps loudest of all. It is credited as the turn of phrase that got the “Morning in America” campaign back on track. But in all the laughter, many people have missed the razor-sharp jab at the Carter-Mondale administration Reagan followed it with: “I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
THIS IS NOWHERE MORE EVIDENT than in Mondale’s discussion of the Iran hostage crisis. He’s honest enough to concede most of the things that critics charged against the Carter administration. Yes, they first refused any assistance to the Shah and then refused to allow him into America once he was deposed. Yes, they refused to help because they were worried about looking bad. Yes, they dithered. Yes, they had to abandon a military rescue attempt when they decided to go with the smallest possible force and there was an accidental collision. And yes, Iran refused to release the hostages from the U.S. embassy until the minute Reagan was sworn into office, but that doesn’t mean that the Carter administration did the wrong thing.
Oh, no, says Mondale: “Some will say it made America look weak and emboldened our enemies. Some have said it revealed a pattern of poor decision-making in the Carter administration. But I take a different lesson, one I think is more important than ever: a caution against the belief that the easy answer — the emotionally satisfying response — is the right answer to every crisis.”
Some might look at that evaluation and charge that Mondale here elevates diplomacy over national honor, which made him the perfect choice for ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration. Some might dissect this for the first glimpse of how America would mismanage its relationship with radical Islamists the world over. Some might see in the White House back-and-forth an indictment of moralistic liberalism on the world stage. But I take a different lesson, one I think is at least as important as it was last November 2: thank God Democrats nominated this man in 1984.