Walter Mondale, of Minnesota’s Scandinavian political legacy, is dead

With Walter F. Mondale’s death last Monday in Minneapolis, one of the few remaining of Minnesota’s great generation of Scandinavian politicians, is gone.

Starting in 1892, when the Norwegian immigrant Knute Nelson was elected governor, Minnesota’s Scandinavian immigrant generations came to shape, even dominate, the state’s politics for decades. Since that year and up to 1999, all but five of Minnesota’s twenty-six governors have been of Scandinavian/Nordic descent, the last one being Swedish Arne Carlson, 1991-99, who told me, during the research for my book, Scandinavians in the State House – How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics, that we are probably seeing the end of the line of Scandinavian governors in Minnesota. “There is no new Scandinavian generation here,” he said. But Minnesota’s unique Scandinavia political legacy lives on, as University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs once told me: “It’s like a fork in the road, and Minnesota has taken the Scandinavian way, and even though the Scandinavians are not running the state, we are on the road that the Scandinavians have put us on.” 

Two of those Minnesota Scandinavians were Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, both descendants of Norwegian immigrants, who became not only US senators but US vice presidents and both, eventually, the Democratic Party’s candidates for President, in 1968 and 1984, respectively. As vice president in the Jimmy Carter administration 1976-80, Mondale paved the way for the new, modern vice presidency, and as presidential candidate, he chose the first woman, New York’s Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate. 

I first met Mondale, whose family and name came from the little village of Mundal in Norway,  in 1984, barnstorming through the Midwest as he sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, a nomination that he would ultimately win only to be thoroughly defeated by Ronald Reagan in November that year, winning only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.  It was a humiliating defeat, but defeat never slowed Mondale down. He did not “crawl under a desk or complain about his losses,” as Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar writes in a New York Times op-ed today. He continued “the good fight” as his autobiography was called, until the end, at 93, still active and still respected, even beloved, and not only in Minnesota.  And I know, Klobuchar also writes, that “Mondale (who died the day before the jury found former police office Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd) was with us rooting for justice.” 

Almost a year earlier, in an op-ed in Minneapolis Star-Tribune in June 2020, Mondale had written that had “watched with horror” Floyd’s death but “felt pride as so many Minnesotans peacefully took to the streets demanding justice.” America, he wrote, “remains scarred by unacceptable disparities,” concluding:

“Each generation is tasked with the hard work of serving in the great fight for justice. Our neighbors who took to the streets over the past few weeks have joined a great cause. I thank them.” 

I can’t claim to have known Walter Mondale, or “Fritz” as he was called, well. During the presidential election campaign of 1984, with his campaign plane full of journalists, there was no opportunity for one-on-one conversations, but I met him again a couple of years ago in connection with my Minnesota book project, interviewed him at length, saw a bit of him socially, and was always struck with how friendly and unpretentious he was.  

When former Minnesota governor, Wendell Anderson, grandson of Swedish immigrants, died in 2016, many hundreds came to his memorial service at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, among them Walter Mondale and his old friend, Warren Spannaus, former state attorney general. At the service, decorated in Sweden’s blue and yellow colors, the prominent mingled with the less prominent in typical low-key Minnesota fashion. Mondale and Spannaus lingered and chatted, and as the two political war horses walked out of the church by themselves in the afternoon heat, Mondale took off his jacket and swung it over one shoulder. They crossed the busy street with the help of two traffic cops and walked slowly up the block as cars buzzed by. At the corner, a woman, waiting for a bus, greeted the two before they turned into a side street where they had parked, apparently unable to find parking in the church parking lot. They climbed into an old car and Spannaus drove off, with the former vice president of the United States as passenger in the front seat.

Growing up in a little town in southern Minnesota, by the border to Iowa, Mondale told me that the one thing his parents stressed was the belief in learning and education. “There was no excuse for ignorance.” But, he continued, they never put this to us as Norwegian values, and Mondale never visited Scandinavia until late in life, as vice president, when, stepping off the plane, he breathed deeply and said, “It smells like Minnesota.” He told me that the huge presence of Scandinavians in Minnesota “has had a big effect on the fundamental direction of our state,” and that legacy “is not a thing of the past but it has merged with our values in Minnesota.” 

I had set out to tell that story in my Minnesota book, and I was so surprised, and pleased, of course, hearing from Mondale shortly after it was published in 2017: 

“Dear Klas:  I just finished reading your wonderful new book, Scandinavians in the State House, and I loved it. It hits exactly the right spot and it fills up and describes in detail a lot of elements that we miss here close to home. I loved the chapter on the Finns. Well, I love them all. It’s an example of the depth of your scholarship.”

I asked Mondale if I could publicize his note and he graciously agreed. Today, it’s framed and hangs proudly on the wall in my home in Los Angeles, California.  Thank you, Mr. Vice President, thank you, Fritz.

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