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Walter Mondale’s Reflections on Political Life

October 14, 2010 at 4:55 PM EDT
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Former Vice President Walter Mondale talks to Judy Woodruff about his life in the political arena and his new autobiography "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics."

JIM LEHRER: Now to a conversation with Walter Mondale. He was a U.S. senator from Minnesota and then vice president under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to ’81. Judy Woodruff talked with him earlier this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former vice president has collected the memories of his tenure in the political arena in a new book, “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics.”

Mr. Vice President, it’s good to have you with us.

WALTER MONDALE, Former Vice President of the United States: Thank you, Judy, and delighted to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a lot of public figures write books right after they leave elected office.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You have chosen to wait 30 years. So, I’m tempted to ask, what’s the rush?



JUDY WOODRUFF: But, instead, I’m going to ask, what took you so long?

WALTER MONDALE: Well, I didn’t want to write it for years, for three our four reasons. I didn’t want to hurt people. If I were going to tell the truth, I’m going to step on some toes. I wanted to do it at a time when I felt comfortable in doing it.

Secondly, as I looked back in my history, I found this urge more and more to spell it out, because, the more you think about it, the more you realize how the past is prologue, how these things we went through maybe 25 years ago are right back with us again today. So, I think history does teach a lot here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You write — you do write about your extraordinary journey to the pinnacle of American politics.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you call your time the high tide of American liberalism.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has the tide gone out, do you think?

WALTER MONDALE: Well, I think we had our chance. We adopted all kinds of legislation.

Politics is cyclical. People wanted to slow down a little bit and review and consolidate. That was the Reagan era. And I think they were — they were having their high tide then. And then it started coming back under Obama.

But then I think the pressure of — and the problems, the overwhelming nature of the challenges we have now has caused Americans to want to step back and look a little bit. But we had that time when we had 30 — 68 senators on the Democratic side, we had a liberal court under Earl Warren, we had Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in the White House, and we were getting things done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, today, the word liberal is practically a dirty word.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s happened?

WALTER MONDALE: You know, I don’t know. I think liberal is the word that we started out with when I was a young Democrat and I was a liberal. And that’s — we were proud to call ourselves that. And then I think the idea got confused with kind of license. You know, people were liberal with other people’s money. People were liberal with lifestyles.

People were — and it became a word that had a sting to it, whereas people started calling themselves progressive. I think it’s the same thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were given unprecedented responsibilities as the vice president under — under — under Jimmy Carter, a model that I think a lot of vice presidents, if not all of them, have followed since then, even under Republicans.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Dick Cheney is an example. Is that the model that you created?

WALTER MONDALE: The model we established of executivizing the vice president, putting the vice president in there with the president, working with him all day long, as I did, has been the model since then.

I would take some exception with Mr. Cheney, because, as I often say, you know, we told the truth, we obeyed the law, and we kept the peace. And I think Cheney can be rightfully criticized for using the — kind of the privilege and the secrecy of the vice president’s office to go on to the dark side, as he called it, where we had a record of disregarding the law, pressing the truth, I thought. And, so, I don’t want to be identified with that chapter, if I can avoid it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you also write that President Carter made mistakes, caused you to have your most serious disagreements with him. What did he not get, not see as president?

WALTER MONDALE: You know, I love Carter, and that’s in the book in almost every — we had — we had a dustup over the — what they call the malaise speech.

In fact, the speech he gave, I thought, was a — was a good one. But we got into a big debate at Camp David about just what would be in that speech. And I probably lost my temper a little bit, and — but we resolved it. And I write about it very candidly in my book.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You — he also has said recently that he holds Ted Kennedy, the late Senator Kennedy, responsible…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … for the fact that you were not able, during the Carter administration, to pass comprehensive health care reform. Now, Ted Kennedy has written differently. You were there.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is President Carter write about that, that Ted Kennedy is responsible?

WALTER MONDALE: I write about it, too.

You know, I’m in the bind, where I like Carter, I worked with him, and I liked Ted, and I worked with him. And I think there is some truth to the fact that we had come up with some health care proposals that were doable at that time that would have been progress. And Ted, who was getting ready to run for president, opposed them.

And I think that the Carter proposal that he presented was a good proposal and would have been progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If Senator Kennedy had gone along?


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying you’re siding with President Carter?

WALTER MONDALE: Yes, on this.


WALTER MONDALE: As long as we’re on it, you know, I worked with Ted Kennedy. You look at our record. They are the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I understand that.

WALTER MONDALE: So, this is not — I’m not trying to start a fight here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s not personal. You said a minute ago lessons from the Carter presidency that might — that would apply today. What — if President Obama were to ask you for advice — and maybe he has — what would you say to him about lessons you have learned?

WALTER MONDALE: I would say two that I have raised publicly and I talk about in the book is the — one is that we’re in a post-partisan era, where politics doesn’t break down on partisan line. And I just don’t think that’s accurate. And I think we lost a lot of time in early Obama administration’s not getting — dealing with the reality.

And, secondly, the idea that Congress can take these measures and just sort of act on their own and send it to the president, without heavy intervention by the White House, I think, even if you have got your own Congress, a president has to get on top of that Congress and drive them with specific proposals and all the rest.

Those are the two, I would say, substantial differences I have had. I think Obama is doing a great job under terrible circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think he needs to focus on now, especially coming out of these elections, which may be difficult for Democrats?

WALTER MONDALE: Yes. People are really hurting, and they’re not sure of where we’re going. Obama is brilliant. And almost everything he’s doing, I agree with. But, somehow, he’s, I don’t think, connecting. And there’s a kind of — well, sort of lack of apparent empathy.

And I think people want to get up every morning thinking, well, maybe he can’t do anything about this, but I know he’s thinking about me. Remember that famous guy standing when Roosevelt’s train went by with — carrying his dead body, and they said, well, “Did you know Roosevelt?”

He said, “No, but Roosevelt knew me.” And I think that two-way connection is sometimes not strongly made now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You even said in an interview the other day you thought he relies on the teleprompter too much.

WALTER MONDALE: Yes. And I think that also can be a distraction. If he’s not looking at the audience, but instead jumping back and forth, yes, I do think that affects his message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying there are physical things a president can do that can make a difference?

WALTER MONDALE: Well, Yes. And that’s a minor point, but I said it, and it got some news. But I think he’s got the message. He’s got the policies, but he’s got to find a way of people knowing that he’s really trying to connect with them and thinking about them all the time. I think that’s what we need now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Vice President Walter Mondale. The book is “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics.” Thank you very much for coming by.

WALTER MONDALE: Thank you. Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.