The Good Fight
A Life in Liberal Politics
by Walter Mondale
with David Hage
Scribner, 384 pp., $28
If the reader is looking for earth-shattering—or gossipy (as in puerile)—news previously not known, Walter Mondale’s autobiography is not for thee. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a recollection of recent history written by an utterly decent man, about whom there has never been a whiff of scandal, who was always a good American, husband, father, and patriot, it is a good read.
It also contains a lot of good perspective (from his vantage point, I hasten to add) on some of the more interesting and important events of the 1960s-80s. Mondale is Old School in the best sense, rarely letting us know what he really thought of his political adversaries. Even Ronald Reagan—who twice pounded Mondale into the ground, in 1980 and again in 1984—is, for the most part, treated respectfully, even as Mondale does not fathom Reagan’s appeal or ideology.
Don’t be put off by the similarity to the title of Benjamin Bradlee’s memoir (A Good Life): Mondale, unlike Bradlee, does not dwell on his rate of masturbation while at boarding school. Indeed, Mondale grew up poor, attended public schools, and came to his Midwestern liberalism/populism naturally, intellectually, organically. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I like Walter Mondale and always have, especially since he granted me several hours of interview time for a book on the 1980 Reagan campaign. The former vice president was garrulous, chatty, warm, and informative. He told many great and small stories which became important contributions to my book, including his amusement that, while he had an office in the West Wing complex (like Zbigniew Brzezinski), unlike Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, he did not have a private bathroom.
Mondale was America’s first consequential vice president, unlike Richard Johnson, Martin Van Buren’s deputy, who was so bored he went home to Kentucky to manage a tavern. Or any in another long line of second bananas ignored, or worse, insulted, by the man at the top, such as poor Thomas Marshall, who waited a year and a half for a meeting with Woodrow Wilson. Mondale was the first vice president with an office in the White House, the first to fully occupy the official residence of the vice president (much to the consternation of the chief of naval operations, since the pleasant Victorian mansion on Massachusetts Avenue had been the CNO’s home for decades). Carter, the outsider to Washington, and even his own party relied heavily on Mondale for advice.
If there is any drawback here, it is that Mondale is frequently too kind: His nemesis Nixon is a “brilliant politician.” Also, while he celebrates the contributions of the Enlightenment to the thinking of the Founders, and declined to support Henry Wallace in 1948 because Wallace was too soft on the Soviets after their coup in Czechoslovakia, you might reasonably assume that Mondale would become more conservative in his politics. You would be mistaken. But then again, he came up in a time when American liberalism was vastly different from what it is today. You could champion the individual, denounce communism—and embrace “social justice.” There are interesting, even funny, anecdotes about his Minnesota mentor, Hubert Humphrey, another of a vanishing breed of gentleman-politicians, as well as Barry Goldwater, whom Mondale describes as a “personal friend.”
The Good Fight is so called because it details Mondale’s battles against racial segregation and the old boy network in the Democratic party—especially the Dixiecrats of the civil rights era. He does make mistakes, however, such as claiming that Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in “Philadelphia, Mississippi, just a few miles from the place where three civil rights workers had been murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964.” This is a myth that had been passed from one liberal to another over the years. (Actually, Reagan began his fall campaign at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.) It was no less than Jimmy Carter who kicked off his fall campaign in Alabama, near an office of the Ku Klux Klan, making an open appeal to regional pride as a means of holding on to a South that was leaning toward Reagan.
When I interviewed Mondale he told me in no uncertain terms (as he has told others) that he had seriously considered resigning in the summer of 1979 because he was deeply opposed to, and offended by, Carter’s famous “malaise” speech. He told me that he had implored Carter not to deliver it as the speech seemed to blame the American people for their troubles, not the government that was the architect of high inflation and long gas lines. Yet here he says that he did not consider resigning.
But as I say, The Good Fight is a good read, well written, enjoyable, and reflective of the contributions of an eminently creditable man to the national debate—a vice president who might well have been more influential on policy and government, over the long term, than his own president.
Craig Shirley, president and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author, most recently, of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.