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You know that guy in class who's always prepared—the kid who actually reminds the teacher that she hasn't checked last night's homework. From a political perspective, that's Walter Mondale: detail-oriented, extremely prepared, the Minnesotan has been praised by governors, legislators—even Presidents—for the meticulous nature in which he completed his work.
Born in Ceylon, Minnesota in 1928, Mondale grew up in a very religious household. These teachings left a lasting desire to help the poor and needy—and help explain his strong support for the legislative initiatives of LBJ and the Great Society. His strong faith, moreover, would help forge the strong relationship he would enjoy with President Jimmy Carter.
But before he ascended to the second highest position in our nation's government, before he ever swapped small-town stories with President Carter, Mondale's first mentor was Hubert Humphrey.
The opposite of the brash, passionate Humphrey, Mondale was cool, reserved. (For all you Trekkies—think Spock, not Captain Kirk.) When Humphrey was tapped as LBJ's vice-president, Mondale was promoted from Attorney General to Senator. And it was in the Senate where Mondale's attention to detail paid dividends.
His accomplishments include adopting an open housing amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. His opposed Nixon's anti-integration and pro-military spending initiatives, cementing his chops as a shrewd and thorough legislator.
These successes, in turn, prompted him to run for President. Yet the grind of a presidential campaign—long days on the road, constant public appearances—took its toll on the quiet Minnesotan. He felt much more comfortable in the background, playing the role of Robin to some attention-soaking Batman.
He found that caped crusader in the relatively unknown governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter. The two worked well together. Both hailed from small towns. Carter respected Mondale's meticulous nature; Mondale, in turn, appreciated Carter's inclusive behavior. (So much did the Vice President influence legislative agendas that Carter set up Mondale with his own office directly in the West Wing)
The two disagreed, however, on the so-called "Crisis of Confidence" speech. From the beginning, Mondale opposed the message, worrying that Carter would come across as grouchy as Oscar from Sesame Street.
He urged Carter to focus on the issues, to drop the lofty rhetoric and stick to concrete solutions. So concerned was Mondale about the political implications of this speech that he considered pulling a John C. Calhoun and resigning from the vice-presidency.
History, as we know, proved Mondale correct. The speech, and subsequent cabinet firings, soured Carter's relationship with the people. This was not be the only relationship to go south on Carter. Mondale's regular presence at and influence over executive meetings dwindled as the as did the viability of Carter's presidency. With the Georgian's defeat in the 1980 election, Walter Mondale assumed leadership of the Democratic Party.
Maybe it was a hangover from the malaise speech—an unfortunate association with the buzzkill mood surrounding Jimmy Carter. Maybe it was an infatuation with the optimistic and likeable Reagan. Or maybe it was more intellectual in nature, the rejection of a liberal agenda in favor of a more conservative policy. Whatever the case, Mondale's 1984 presidential bid ended in a crushing defeat. Reagan won forty-nine of fifty states, with the Minnesotan managing only to secure his home state and the District of Columbia.
In later years, Mondale shied away from the legislature but not from political life altogether. He went on to become the U.S. ambassador to Japan. When the time came to assume what would be his final political office, he was sworn in, quite fittingly, by Al Gore, another Democratic Vice-President.