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From figurehead to partner: How Walter Mondale transformed the office of vice president

Former Vice President Walter Mondale passed away Monday night at his home in Minneapolis. He was a lifelong public servant who transformed the role of vice president, and championed civil rights under Jimmy Carter before losing his own run for the presidency to Ronald Reagan. William Brangham has this look at Mondale's life and legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Vice President Walter Mondale passed away last night at his home in Minneapolis.

    He was a lifelong public servant who transformed the role of vice president and championed civil rights under President Jimmy Carter, before losing his own run for the presidency to Ronald Reagan.

    William Brangham has this look at Mondale's life and legacy.

  • Walter Mondale:

    Thank you very much. Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    He stood as the standard-bearer for liberal values against a conservative Republican icon.

  • Walter Mondale:

    We didn't win, but we made history, and that fight has just begun.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    Walter Mondale lost that fight in 1984 to incumbent Ronald Reagan in a landslide of historic proportions. He'd risen to the top of the Democratic Party during what he called the high tide of liberalism, only to watch as the tide went out.

    Mondale reflected on his life in politics on the "NewsHour."

  • Walter Mondale:

    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 having their high tide then.

  • William Brangham:

    Walter Frederick "Fritz" Mondale was born in Ceylon, Minnesota, in 1928. He started early in politics, as a 20-year-old working on the Senate campaign of fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey.

    After college, Mondale spent two years in the Army, before heading to law school. And by the age of 32, he was named attorney general of Minnesota. He stepped on to the national stage when then-Senator Humphrey won the vice presidency in 1964, and Mondale was tapped to fill Humphrey's Senate seat, and then elected to a full term two years later.

    Once in Washington, he championed the Fair Housing and Civil Rights Acts.

  • Walter Mondale:

    While it was partisan, we had our debates and all that, there was kind of an underlying sense of civility.

  • William Brangham:

    Then, in 1976, Jimmy Carter made the now seasoned senator his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket. The outsider Carter relied on Mondale as his guide to Washington's political workings.

    And Mondale expanded the traditional role of vice president from figurehead to partner. The two men looked back on the relationship in a 2015 tribute.

  • Walter Mondale:

    I wanted to be a trouble shooter, and I wanted to do — take on chores around the country and around the world.

  • Jimmy Carter:

    As a Georgia peanut farmer, I needed a lot of help.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jimmy Carter:

    And I felt the vice president would be the best one to give me the help I needed.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jimmy Carter:

    And I never had served in Washington before.

  • William Brangham:

    Mondale traveled the world, promoting the Carter administration's foreign policy, including trips to help broker a peace deal between Israel and Egypt.

  • Walter Mondale:

    Never have the prospects for peace been so favorable. Never have the dangers of failure been so great.

  • William Brangham:

    He also strongly disagreed with President Carter at times: He argued vehemently against the president's 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech and against a grain embargo on the Soviet Union.

    Mondale talked about his trailblazing term with the "NewsHour"'s Judy Woodruff in 2010.

  • 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.

  • William Brangham:

    As oil prices skyrocketed and the Iran hostage crisis dragged on, the Carter administration foundered.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    In 1980, Ronald Reagan took the White House from Mr. Carter after just one term.

    Mondale returned to private life, but he geared up for his own presidential run. After a fierce primary battle with Senator Gary Hart and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Mondale won the Democratic nomination in 1984.

    Then, facing Reagan, who was now a popular incumbent, Mondale made a bold move, naming Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.

  • Walter Mondale:

    I have had many people tell me it's the best national convention we have ever had. People were thrilled. The crowds were building up outside the hall.

  • Geraldine Ferraro:

    My name is Geraldine Ferraro.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Geraldine Ferraro:

    America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    At the Democratic Convention, Mondale also sought to persuade the country that the Reagan era prosperity was a bubble and that a reckoning would come.

  • Walter Mondale:

    Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.

  • William Brangham:

    But the message failed to resonate during an economic boom, and the former vice president struggled to escape the policy failures of President Carter.

  • Walter Mondale:

    I'd rather be the underdog in a campaign about decency than to be ahead in a campaign only about self-interest.

  • William Brangham:

    As the Cold War dragged on, Mondale called for a nuclear freeze, which President Reagan then used to paint him as weak on national defense.

    On the debate stage, though, Mondale's prospects brightened briefly, when Mr. Reagan stumbled through answers, raising questions about his age and mental fitness. But the president came back in the second debate with his now-famous retort.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I'm not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Even Mondale joined in the laughter, but later said that was the moment he knew he'd lost the election.

    Indeed, on Election Day, it was a crushing rout. Mondale lost every state but his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

  • Walter Mondale:

    Although I would have rather won…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Walter Mondale:

    … tonight, we rejoice in our democracy, we rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people, and we accept their verdict.

  • William Brangham:

    Mondale returned again to private life, before President Bill Clinton named him as ambassador to Japan in 1993.

    Later, he served as an envoy to Indonesia. And, in 2002, he returned for a final campaign, when Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash. Mondale ran in Wellstone's stead, 22 years after he'd last held elected office, but he lost.

  • Walter Mondale:

    I love Minnesotans. And then what is obviously the end of my last campaign, I want to say to Minnesotans, you always treated me decently. You always listened to me.

  • William Brangham:

    Mondale endured personal tragedies in those final years as well. His daughter, Eleanor, died of brain cancer in 2011. And his wife, Joan Mondale, his partner of almost 60 years, passed away in 2014.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Walter Mondale was 93 years old.

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