Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

So Long to Walter Mondale, One of the Greats

As an accomplished senator and pioneering vice president, Mondale transformed the government.

Hero of the republic.

Hero of the republic.

Photographer: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive

Get Jonathan Bernstein’s newsletter every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

Walter Mondale died Monday. An important senator, a historic vice president and a presidential nominee, he was universally liked and respected.

Mondale wasn’t just any vice president; he has correctly been credited with almost single-handedly inventing the modern version of the position. Before him, vice presidents just didn’t do much. They spent more time in the Senate than they do now, but they didn’t play a significant role in the administration. From Mondale on, they became key figures, central advisers to the president, usually with critical and specifically assigned responsibilities. Vice presidents remain objects of ridicule, but now they’re objects of ridicule who have extremely important jobs (see Mondale discuss the position with Joe Biden here, and an oral-history interview here).

Mondale’s presidential run in 1984 ended about as badly as possible; Ronald Reagan crushed him, with Mondale winning only his own Minnesota and Washington, DC. But not only did he lose with class, his selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was a major breakthrough, even if it didn’t work out at the time. No Democrat was going to come close to winning in 1984, but Mondale was no disgrace to the party or its agenda.

All that was important, but Mondale also belonged to a generation of outstanding liberal Democratic senators, serving from 1965 until he assumed the vice presidency in 1977. Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Fred Harris, Ted Kennedy, Ed Muskie and others took the job seriously, legislating and performing oversight. (They were joined by a very talented group of moderate and conservative Democrats, and a similarly excellent group of conservative, moderate and even liberal Republicans. It was a very good era for the Senate.)

For all of Mondale’s other accomplishments, his major policy achievements were in the Senate, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In fact, his transformation of the vice presidency is probably best seen in the context of a wave of institutional reform that his cohort was right in the middle of, thoroughly overhauling the House, changing the Senate, creating a new presidential-nomination system, and reforming the intelligence community — while also adding an alphabet soup of new federal agencies.

It was a real loss to the nation, not to mention liberal causes, that the Democratic Party of the time was too dysfunctional to nominate any of those excellent senators in 1976.

And on top of all that, Mondale’s personal and professional reputation was as good as it gets. He was a true hero of the republic.

1. Greg Koger at Mischiefs of Faction on the origins of the Senate filibuster — and why it has always depended on support from enough individual senators.

2. Zoe Nemerever and Melissa Rogers at the Monkey Cage on reclassifying what’s urban and what’s not.

3. Dan Drezner on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

4. Perry Bacon Jr. on challenges for political journalism.

5. And Kevin Drum on corporate America and the Republican Party.