By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) – Walter Mondale, the former vice president who represented a time in American history when being pro-Israel and progressive were often synonymous, died Monday, April 19, at his home in Minneapolis. He was 93.
From the launch of his political career, Mondale was close to the national Jewish and pro-Israel communities. He found in those organizations willing partners in his endeavors to expand civil rights, and they found in him an avid advocate of Israel.
Mondale acted as a buffer between President Jimmy Carter, under whom he served as vice president, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and when the talks that culminated in an Israel-Egypt peace deal turned tense. Begin was said to favor the company of the affable Mondale over Carter, who was standoffish.
Mondale was one of three U.S. lawmakers present at the dedication of Israel’s Knesset building in 1966 – he was a Minnesota senator at the time.
Israel policy was one of the few areas where Carter and Mondale differed. (The other was Mondale’s impatience with what he believed was Carter’s tendency to scold the American public.) In 2007, appearing with Carter on CNN in an interview marking 30 years since they assumed office, he gently pushed back at his friend’s book published not long before, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, in an exchange that was otherwise all mutual admiration.
“I have read the book,” Mondale said. “I think there’s a lot of good materials in there. I do have a few problems with it, but if I might, I’d like to talk to the president about it first.”
In 1981, Mondale broke with Carter – and with Reagan, the incumbent president – on selling advanced spy aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Both Carter and Reagan favored the deal – a major contention point with AIPAC. Mondale lobbied his former Senate colleagues to oppose the deal.
Mondale’s 1984 campaign to retake the White House from Reagan brought in major Jewish support in the form of both donors and endorsements.
Mondale made freeing Soviet Jews an issue in his campaign and slammed his rival Jesse Jackson for consorting with Louis Farrakhan, the antisemitic leader of the Nation of Islam. He was endorsed by the leaders of the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish communities. Arab Americans said Mondale excluded them from his campaign out of deference to pro-Israel supporters.
Mondale, who came to Washington in 1964 as Hubert Humphrey’s handpicked replacement as a Minnesota senator when President Lyndon Johnson named Humphrey to be vice president, set multiple precedents in his long career. When Carter tapped Mondale to be his running mate in ’76, Mondale was the first vice president to negotiate an active vice presidential role that placed him next to the president. That set the tone for almost every vice president to follow, and some of his successors, including Al Gore and now-President Joe Biden, said as much in mourning Mondale’s passing.
Mondale set another precedent in 1984 when he named a woman, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., as his running mate in the presidential race he lost to Ronald Reagan.
Mondale suffered one of the most decisive defeats in modern times, winning only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. But he restored the close relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party, earning 70% of the Jewish vote in an election in which almost 60% of the ballots were cast for Reagan. In 1980, Carter had been the first Democrat in two generations to lose the majority of the Jewish vote.
It would not be Mondale’s last electoral defeat. In 2002 he stepped in 11 days before the election to run for Minnesota senator after Paul Wellstone, the well-liked Jewish incumbent, died in a plane crash. He lost narrowly to Norm Coleman, a Jewish Republican.
Mondale never flagged in his good cheer and his self-deprecation. Fulfilling his constitutional duty in 1981 to announce the results of the Electoral College, Mondale noted that George H. W. Bush had received 489 votes to be vice president and “Walter F. Mondale of the state of Minnesota has received 49 votes.” He cracked up laughing, and added “A landslide!” and the entire chamber – Republicans and Democrats – rose to applaud him.
Mourning Mondale were the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel.
Mondale is survived by two sons. He was predeceased by his wife, Joan, and by a daughter.
Main Photo: Walter Mondale in 1976. John Sunderland/The Denver Post via Getty Images