My Walter Mondale story | Essay

In this file photo, former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale is shown with his wife, grandson and members of the campaign staff of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, after accepting the nomination by Democrats to run for U.S. Senate Oct. 30, 2002, in Minneapolis. (Photo by Mark Erickson/Getty Images)

If you have been involved in Minnesota politics or public life anytime over the past four decades, likely you have a Walter Mondale story. Mine began on Oct. 26, 2002 — the day after Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and three campaign aides died in a plane crash on the Iron Range, 12 days before Election Day. I was running Paul’s campaign for re-election that year, and while the race was close and hard fought, I was growing confident we would win.   

In the hours after that unthinkable loss, there was little time to mourn. With just days to go, the DFL had to find a replacement for Paul on the ballot. It needed to be someone with gravitas who could carry on Paul’s progressive leadership in the Senate, whose name could transcend the awful loss, and someone who could bring people together quickly. Many names surfaced, but there was only one real choice: former vice-president, former senator, former ambassador, and favorite son Walter Mondale.  

The former vice president agreed to meet a small group of us — including Paul’s son David — that Saturday morning in his quiet law firm office. We were all a grieving mess and barely holding it together. I remember him lightening the mood by reaching behind his desk, pulling out bottles of water and tossing them at good speed across his office to each of us.

We got right down to it. We told him there was only one who could pick up this campaign at this moment, and that he was that person. David told him that he knew his parents loved Mondale, were grateful for his support over the years, and that he believed that this is what they would have wanted. It did not take long for Mondale to signal that he understood his role. And while he needed to talk to Joan and his family, we left knowing he would do it. He insisted though that he would not actually start campaigning until after the memorial service scheduled for the coming Tuesday. I was incredibly moved by this act of supreme selflessness and could not help but think this was probably the last thing he wanted to do — step out of his fine life as legal advisor, teacher, political sage, elder statesman and grandfather, and stand for election in a crazy six-day campaign for U.S. Senate. But he did.

To our horror, in the next several days, things went from worse to even worse. The memorial service to honor the six who died in the plane crash — televised nationally and live from Williams Arena — descended into controversy and was criticized as an exploitation of Paul’s death for political purposes. While that of course was never the intention, the damage had been done. 

The next day — now six days before Election Day — Mondale officially stepped out to ask voters to keep Wellstone’s legacy alive. But with the help of Fox News and others, public opinion gelled sharply against the memorial service and fouled the rest of the campaign. With less than a week to make his case, it was clear Mondale had been handed an impossible task and lost by 2% on Nov. 5.   

Former Vice President Walter Mondale with then-Vice President Joe Biden
Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with former Vice President Walter Mondale during an event to honor the former VP at George Washington University Oct. 20, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

What I saw from Mondale in the face of this personally painful and uncomfortable moment for him, was most extraordinary. Without anger or bitterness at being put in a losing situation from the beginning, without blame toward others, Walter Mondale forthrightly and without any caveats, absorbed and accepted the loss as his. Not only that, he immediately turned his focus to the many dozens of Paul’s young staff who despite their grief and devastation, had picked themselves up and worked their heart out for Mondale those last few days.  

When it was clear the morning after Election Day that he had lost, Mondale did something incredible and indelible in the lives of Paul Wellstone’s campaign staff. In a private meeting just before he went out and conceded, he pleaded with these young people to not let these events dampen their passion for staying involved and continuing their work to change the world. He told them they were needed now more than ever. He told them he was proud of them. And when he stepped in front of the cameras to concede, he invited those young people up on stage behind him and said they were the reason he ran in Paul’s stead, and then turned around and thanked them. I remember a reporter approaching me after that moment and asking why Mondale did not point out how the memorial service had hobbled his candidacy? I told her that we had just seen how someone with class and grace acts in a situation like that.  

My story does not end there. I was wracked with guilt about the events of 2002. I felt responsible as the person in charge for chartering the plane that went down due to pilot error, for agreeing to put Sheila and daughter Marcia on that plane, and for sending three staffers with them. I was deeply embarrassed for how the memorial service was received and perceived. And I was ashamed for putting so much pressure on Mondale to run, only to have him quickly lose. I assumed that was the last I would interact with him.  

But he reached out after the dust had settled, and asked to meet. He wanted to hear none of my self-pity or apologies, and instead wanted to de-brief the election and talk about what I was going to do next. And that one meeting turned into an ongoing relationship and a regular routine. Every several months we would meet for lunch at one of his favorite venues, or just talk on the phone. And when I got to run the Minnesota Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, he jumped in with both feet, doing everything asked of him to help us win. One memory of that time was an auditorium full of University of Minnesota students greeting him as a rock star as he spoke before an Obama-Romney debate watch party in the fall of 2012.

The last time we talked was on the phone after the November 2020 election. Although he was clearly slowing down, he greeted me with the same question he always did when he wanted my rundown of the political scene: “What’s going on?” He was interested and active and caring and passionate up until the end. 

Walter Mondale became more than just a mentor to me. He taught me about leadership and handling loss. He taught me about living a full life based on decency, honesty, empathy and the courage of conviction.

All things we could use more of in today’s politics and public life.