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.

America is still not ready for a woman President

It is now, officially, a two-man race for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and it is clear that America is still not ready for a woman president.

As Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, today dropped out of the presidential race, she joined her Senate colleagues, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, California’s Kamala Harris, and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who all had bowed out earlier. They were white, black; experienced; well-qualified; progressive; moderate; articulate, tough, energetic.

It did not help.

Four years after Hillary Clinton came so close to victory and lost in spite of getting almost three million more votes than Trump, writes Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, “we had a presidential field full of talented and accomplished women, and surely, so many of us thought, one of them might prevail. Yet they fell, one after another, until only the most talented and accomplished (Warren) among them was left. And in the end, she too was judged inadequate.  So, our more than 200-year-long streak of electing only men to the presidency will continue. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything different.”

Left now are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, two white men, one of whom will face Donald Trump, another white man, in November. What does that say about gender equality in America? Well, that it is still a much more conservative country than the democracies of Europe and that gender equality lags far behind those European allies, where women for years have served as their countries’ political leaders.

Back in 1984, and way ahead of his time, Minnesota’s Walter Mondale became the Democratic party’s presidential nominee and chose a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his vice-presidential running mate. They lost, and lost big, to Ronald Reagan, who was reelected by winning every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia. It took until 2016 for another woman, Hillary Clinton, to once again be part of presidential ticket, and that did not end well, either, which Washington Post’s columnist, Jennifer Rubin, touches upon when she writes how  “commentary posited from the get-go that Hillary Clinton lost; ergo, women are too risky. The country is not ready. The race is too important to risk the nomination on a woman. There was zero evidence for the proposition that gender alone explained Clinton’s loss…To the contrary, women had won in overwhelming numbers in 2018, in large part by attracting female voters. Nevertheless, the narrative persisted, fueled by the mainstream media insistence that the failure to win white, working-class men in 2016 meant Democrats needed a white man to attract those voters this time around.”

Still, many believe that whoever finally wins the nomination – Biden or Sanders – there has to be a woman on the ticket. Biden is now the overwhelming favorite to win and Minnesota’s Klobuchar is politically closest to Biden. She is also from the Midwest, an important part of the country to capture for the Democrats. But Biden could also choose Warren to build the important bridge to the party’s progressive wing and keep the party united, or Harris, thereby having both a woman and an African American on the ticket.

So, November’s election could still be historic, although not quite to the degree it would have been with a woman at the top of the ticket. And that still seems a long way off.

 

For Minnesota’s Wendell Anderson — “Tryggare kan ingen vara”

“Tryggare kan ingen vara,” the classic Swedish psalm called “Children of the Heavenly Father” in English, was sung in both languages earlier this week at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as the life of former Democratic Governor Wendell Anderson was celebrated. “Wendy,” as he was called, died on July 17, 83 years old. He was Sweden’s best friend in Minnesota — maybe in all of America.

Hundreds had gathered in the church, founded by Swedish immigrants, to a service dedicated to all things Swedish. Political Minnesota, both former and present leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans, filled the front pews – a former Democratic U.S. Vice President, two former Republican governors, a U.S. Senator, legislators, members of Congress, and many, many political friends.

Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton called “Wendy” one of the state’s “greatest governors,” someone straight out of central casting, tall and handsome, and with a last name ending in “son” – the “quintessential” Minnesota governor. “Well done, very well done, rest in peace,” Dayton concluded. Former long-term majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, Roger Moe, called “Wendy’s” years as governor, with an emphasis on education and the environment, as the “most productive” in Minnesota history. “What a legacy he leaves,” Moe said. “Thank you for all you did for all of us.”

Wendell Anderson, Minnesota’s governor from 1971 to 1977, loved Sweden. He once wrote, “I am a Swede who happens now to live in America.” Born into a working class family in St Paul, Anderson became a star hockey player, first at the University of Minnesota and then as a member of the U.S. national team that won the silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics. All his grandparents were Swedish Americans; three of them were born in Sweden. He had been to Sweden 40 times and, he once told me, was even thinking about getting a “stuga” so he could spend his summers there. After law school, only 37 years old, he became the state’s youngest governor ever, winning 13 of 14 Swedish counties and nine of eleven Norwegian, three of four Finnish, and both of the most Danish counties in Minnesota. In 1974, riding high, he was reelected in a landslide, capturing all of Minnesota’s 87 counties. By then, the young governor had landed in the national spotlight as he followed up on his campaign promise through the Omnibus Tax Bill that raised 588 million dollars in new taxes for increased state support for public education. The bill was a fundamental reform of school finance, equalizing school funding between rich and poor districts, and became known as the “Minnesota Miracle” – the high tide of liberalism in Minnesota – despite both the State Senate and House being controlled by the Republicans.

On August 13, 1973, Wendell Anderson landed on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline, “The Good Life in Minnesota,” and the state was described as “the state that works.” Wendell Anderson on TIME's coverBut his decision in late 1976 to resign and assume the seat in the U.S. Senate that Walter Mondale vacated upon his election as U.S. Vice President proved politically fatal. He lost the election to a full Senate term in 1978 to a Republican. A Republican also captured the second Senate seat and his successor as governor, Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich, lost his bid for a full term to a third Republican. The decade that had started with the “Minnesota Miracle” ended with the “Minnesota Massacre.” Wendell Anderson’s political career was over. He was never again elected to political office. He practiced law and served as a regent of the University of Minnesota. In 1975, he was selected Swedish American of the Year and he also served as Sweden’s honorary consul in Minnesota.

A Swedish flag, blue and yellow napkins, and coffee and cookies, greeted the attendants in the church basement after the memorial service. The prominent mingled with the less prominent in typical low-key Minnesota fashion before they all went their separate ways. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and his old friend and law firm colleague, former Minnesota Attorney General, Warren Spannaus, lingered, 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 in and Spannaus drove off, with the former Vice President of the United States as passenger in the front seat.

That’s Minnesota, too.

 

 

Minnesota’s Democrats rally their forces for November battles

It was a celebration of the past glory days and it was a rally to keep the political power in the future, when Minnesota’s ruling party, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL), tonight gathered for the third annual Humphrey-Mondale dinner.

There must have been a thousand party loyalists in the Minneapolis Convention Center, and they all seemed to enjoy themselves, wildly rooting for Governor Mark Dayton and U.S. Senator Al Franken to be re-elected in November, enthusiastically greeting the state’s other DFL Senator, Amy Klobuchar, who is not up for re-election, and showering good will over former Vice President Walter Mondale, whose wife Joan recently passed away and who, himself, recently went through heart surgery.

And there, in the video clips on the big screens, was Hubert Humphrey, the legendary former Senator and Vice President, and the main architect of the merger of the Democratic Party with the Farmer Labor Party back in 1944, and Paul Wellstone, another DFL legend and US Senator, who died in an airplane crash just days before the election in 2002, a tragedy that paved the way for Republican Norm Coleman to become Senator.

Al Franken, in turn, beat Coleman six years ago, by only 312 votes and after an eternal recount, and he promised tonight that he will win in November — by a greater margin. The DFL:ers loved it.

And they loved the evening’s special guest speaker, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts, just like Minnesota a solidly progressive and Democratic state. Her populist economic message about fighting back against the Republicans and the big money that are aiming to buy this country and fighting to give ordinary people an opportunity and a chance by creating a level playing field, brought people to their feet, time and again.

But among all the laughter and jubilation was also the serious message to the loyalists that an election victory in November will require hard work, lots of hard work, to get out the vote. I need you, said Al Franken.