|Former Vice President Walter Mondale (Democrat)|
Spurred by a grieving family and innumerable party leaders, Walter Mondale, 74, stepped in as Minnesota's Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. The veteran politician is hoping to fill the seat held by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died along with his wife, daughter and five others in a plane crash Oct. 25.
Mondale, a living legend of Minnesota politics, is looking to add a second act to a public life that has spanned five decades. A crusading liberal U.S. senator, a potent vice president and a one-time presidential candidate, his resume and deep roots in Minnesota make him a force that may overwhelm former St. Paul mayor and Republican senatorial candidate Norm Coleman.
Walter Mondale was born on Jan. 5, 1928, just eight years after his father, Theodore Mondale, lost the family farm in an economic downturn. But the elder Mondale was a strong-willed man who had sent himself to a six-month course at the Red Wing seminary to become a Methodist preacher so the family would not go hungry.
Young Walter grew up a child of the Depression, helping his family by earning money singing at weddings and funerals, harvesting crops alongside migrant workers (whose cause he would later champion as a senator) and selling vegetables door to door.
His political career pre-dated his own ability to vote. In 1948, the 20-year-old helped canvass conservative southern Minnesota, urging voters to back the mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, for U.S. Senate. He took one year off of school in 1949 to work in Washington, D.C. for the new senator, but returned to Minnesota in 1950. He resumed his education by attending the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, in political science in 1951.
After college he went into the Army, rising to the rank of corporal while working for Information and Education Division. After being honorably discharged in 1953, Mondale used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Minnesota's Law School. There he excelled, serving on the law review board and as a clerk in the Minnesota Supreme Court while still in school.
Following graduation, Mondale began a swift ascent up the political ladder. Just two years after being accepted to the bar, he was appointed special assistant attorney general -- a post he held until 1958, when he returned to private law practice.
When the next governor called on the 32-year-old in 1960, it was to appoint him to finish out a term as attorney general. Within months of assuming the post, he won election to the post in his own right and scored another victory two years later. During his tenure he also began to focus on national issues, serving on the president's Consumer Advocacy Council from 1960 to 1964.
Another appointment would move Mondale to the national scene. Karl Rovaag, the Democratic governor, appointed the 36-year-old to the U.S. Senate in Dec. 1965 to fill the spot being vacated by recently elected vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Within 10 years of graduating law school, Mondale had risen to the rank of U.S. senator, after just two successful attorney general bids. Even those close to him said the ascent was profound.
"The thing that is most evident about Mondale is that he's non-abrasive," Hubert Humphrey said of his protégé. "He was not a polarizer. He coupled all this with what was obvious talent: He was young, he was articulate, he was intelligent, and clean-cut. He kept filling the bill. It's most amazing."
But in the Senate, Mondale quickly built a reputation as liberal who used the upper house's rules and committees to their utmost. He championed civil rights, the problems of children, education, the environment and freer trade with the Soviet bloc. He also fought many of his own party to overcome a southern filibuster of legislation against racial discrimination in housing. The Minnesotan almost single-handedly blocked a series of anti-busing bills when other northern Democrats had lost their stomach for busing.
But many journalists and fellow Democrats have also observed that Mondale was not a man prone to take political risks. He himself has agreed he is not an ideologue.
"I'm not a messiah. I like to be persuaded of the sound nature of a policy before I pursue it. I'm a pragmatic liberal," Mondale said of his own political beliefs.
As the Watergate scandal unfolded and many Democrats began to jockey for position as a presidential candidate in 1976, Walter Mondale was among those seriously weighing a challenge. Throughout 1974, Mondale traveled the nation testing the waters for a presidential campaign. In October, he told a group of reporters in Newark, N.J., "I'm probably going to run."
But three weeks later, he bowed out of the race at a Capitol Hill press conference.
"I do not have the overwhelming desire to be president which is essential for the kind of campaign which is required. I admire those with the determination to do what is required to seek the presidency but I have found that I am not among them," Mondale said.
When Jimmy Carter looked for a running mate in 1976 to complement his southern governor roots, he turned to Mondale. The northern liberal ran as a strong partner to Mr. Carter and in January 1977, Walter Mondale was sworn in as the 42nd vice president of the United States.
Despite their collective efforts, the Carter/Mondale team went down in defeat four years later, losing to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Mondale landed a lucrative job in a friend's law firm upon leaving the vice presidency in 1981.
He also planned a run of his own against Reagan in 1984. It was a risky move to take on a popular sitting president; especially for a man most observers said hates to leave things to chance.
"He would not take the bold, dramatic steps that might capture the imagination of those who were not attracted by his quiet, intelligent, decent liberalism," Finlay Lewis wrote in his book, Mondale: Portrait of an American Politician. "Until confronted with the White House as the last political prize to win, Mondale was determined not to suffer the humiliation of losing."
But before he could take on the Republican president he had to face off against a crowded field of fellow Democrats, including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart and John Glenn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Although Kennedy bowed out of the campaign early, the primaries were brutal. Mondale won the Iowa Caucus, but then lost the New Hampshire primary to Hart. Better funded and more experienced, Mondale pulled ahead, but both campaigns had been weakened by the race. By June, Mondale garnered the necessary delegates to secure the nomination.
But the man who reportedly hated taking risks had one more in the offing that year. He selected New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate, the first woman to appear on a major party's national ticket.
Despite the historic nature of the selection, the Mondale/Ferraro campaign trailed badly in the polls. It appeared there was nothing that could derail a second term for Ronald Reagan until the first debate in October that year. The president performed badly, stumbling over facts, appearing tired and at times rambling. The 56-year-old Mondale came across much more confident and poised. Polls began to shift in his favor.
In the second debate, President Reagan was much more in command, making light of his earlier troubles when asked if he was too old for the stresses of the office.
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," Mr. Reagan quipped.
Mondale, standing across from the president, laughed, but later said he knew his uphill campaign was doomed.
"If TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you'll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think," Mondale later told Jim Lehrer. "I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was."
President Reagan pulled away, winning a landslide victory that fall. The president scored electoral victories in every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia, besting Mondale by more than 16 million votes.
Following his defeat he retired from politics, living in Washington and Minnesota and practicing law.
He has returned to public life on occasion, most recently serving as ambassador to Japan during the first Clinton administration. He has also written five books including The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency in 1976 and Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Most Influential Men and Women this year.
He has been married to his wife Joan for 45 years and they have three grown children.
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour