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A Good Man's Good Fights

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Walter F. Mondale was a central figure in the United States Senate during its peak years from 1964 to 1976. Only 46 other men have served as vice president, a tiny number over 221 years of American history. Of them, Mondale was the one who transformed the office from a sinecure to a consequential job. And he was his party's presidential nominee in 1984, it being Mondale's misfortune that his "chance" came the year Ronald Reagan sought re-election. In American history, only four men have more often been a major party presidential or vice-presidential nominee.

Mondale's new memoir, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics (Simon and Schuster), written with journalist David Hage, presents these and other historic events of his life, yet that is not principally what makes this book such a compelling read. Rather, Mondale uses his story to illuminate the past and future of American liberalism and our governmental institutions. And in doing so, he showcases personal virtues which are all too rare in public (and private) persons.

Mondale's "good fights" often involved efforts to defend rights of, or extend opportunity to, those people American or global society excluded and to align American policy with high and compassionate values. Reagan's famous formulation that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" offended Mondale's basic belief that government is a necessary means by which America pursues intrinsic ideals and commitments. These themes recur in Mondale's stories -- the amicus brief of 22 state attorneys generals to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants in Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1964 arrangement to seat black Mississippi delegates and to forbid discrimination at future Democratic conventions, the 1968 fair housing law, the legislative battles on behalf of children and the impoverished, the effort to strengthen the Carter administration's brief in the Bakke affirmative action case, the intervention to cause a reluctant United States and world to rescue Southeast Asian refugees on unseaworthy vessels, and so on.

And in 1984, Mondale was the first presidential candidate who systematically considered women and minorities for vice president. Mondale included three women, two African-Americans and one Hispanic officeholder among those interviewed. Mondale's selection of Representative Geraldine Ferraro reflected his conclusion that he needed to reshuffle the electoral deck to have a chance against Reagan but the process and decision were consistent with Mondale's longstanding commitments to open doors to those excluded.

In the 1970s, Mondale and other liberals also focused on restraining government misconduct and making power accountable. Mondale led the fight to reduce the vote needed to stop Senate filibusters and to subject intelligence surveillance to prior judicial review. Whereas Reaganism offended Mondale's belief in compassionate public policy, two Richards -- first Nixon and much later Cheney -- personified the peril of unaccountable government.

Mondale's stories convey lessons about institutions as well as public values. In the Senate of the 1960s and 1970s, an institution Mondale revered, civility was a valued norm and bipartisanship the way public business was done. Mondale and Georgia's Richard Russell were ideological foes yet when Mondale led the successful fight to overcome a filibuster against fair housing legislation, the old southern baron extended his hand in congratulations. In Mondale's battle to reform the Senate filibuster, James Allen, a parliamentary whiz, wore out his welcome, even among fellow conservatives, a lesson some contemporary intransigents might consider. The Senate in 1975 would not allow the Ford administration's stonewalling to defeat a sensitive investigation because Republican members valued institutional responsibility over partisan loyalty. Mondale emerges as a pragmatic politician who would compromise to accomplish something.

Yet Mondale also illustrates how parochial concerns influenced votes and how idiosyncrasy impacted political behavior. Congressional leaders became upset when President Jimmy Carter, consistent with his Spartan ethic, replaced the lavish White House breakfasts they relished with Danish and coffee.

Mondale's most historic institutional contribution was creating the new vice presidency, a monumental transformation given the prior troubled record of that office. Mondale proposed that he be a general adviser and troubleshooter with broad access but without portfolio. This design represented a counterintuitive, but critical, departure from past efforts which sought to claim some program to run as a source of power. It preserved Mondale's generalist perspective, allowed him to focus on important problems, and avoided turf battles. Carter gave Mondale a West Wing office, something Mondale hadn't requested, and placed him in the chain of command. The Mondale model converted a superfluous office into an important part of American government. He did so by imagining vice-presidential duties which could help advance administration and public objectives and by skillfully executing the vision. (Generously, Mondale twice quotes my writing on the subject).

Mondale uses the past to illuminate recurring problems. The Iranian hostage crisis, which helped bring down Carter's administration, offers a case study in the difficulty of dealing with foreign extremist challenges. Carter's patient, measured conduct was more productive than the Bush-Cheney Iraq policy, the type of large scale military recklessness to which neither Reagan nor George H.W. Bush succumbed. America cannot allow "national self-interest to subordinate all other values" or it will "slip into a Hobbesian world of evil motives and worse behavior." Think waterboarding.

Mondale's vision of liberalism in the 21st century recognizes a continuing need for government to do what individuals cannot do for themselves. America's economy must be strong for America to create opportunity and transmit its highest values yet spreading opportunity also produces communal strength. Competitive markets remain essential but require wise government investment in our collective future and effective regulation to deter the Madoffs and Enrons and those who would profit while externalizing costs. Mondale's vision also requires improving governmental institutions, in part by injecting more civility and less private money into politics, and renewing our commitment to the rule of law and to basic American values.

Unlike most memoirs, Mondale's is not an exercise in narcissism. Mondale is not cast as a political Superman who regularly rescued the nation from imminent doom with bold interventions on the Senate floor and in the Oval Office. Mondale grew up in a home where the two causes for punishment were bragging and lying and those early lessons helped form the values of a lifetime.

Mondale showers praise on others. Hubert H. Humphrey was a remarkable figure who inspired a generation. Pages present Carter as a committed public trustee determined to govern according to principles and evidence, not political expediency, a leader who was "willing to do what's right for his country, even if it's wrong for his career." Mondale thought Edward Kennedy was wrong to challenge Carter (and Mondale) for the 1980 nomination but this discussion is surrounded by generous accolades to his old friend ("He is now rightly remembered as one of America's greatest senators and public leaders. He was, in the end, a giant and a great champion of the causes we both held dear.")

Mondale shares or deflects credit for his successes. Wife Joan frequently gave sage advice. Chief of staff Dick Moe prepared his memorandum on the vice presidency, Max Kampelman concocted a diplomatic solution which allowed Mondale to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem without offending Arabs, Richard Holbrooke and aide Marty Kaplan helped write Mondale's moving speech to a United Nations conference on refugees which galvanized the world to act.

Perhaps some successful figure has written a memoir which so willingly acknowledges error but I haven't read it. Mondale presents a "testy exchange" with Ford's Attorney General, Edward Levi, and then apologizes for sounding like a "smart aleck" and for disparaging Levi who was "a good person." Mondale says he awakened to the inflationary pressures in the economy too late and bore some responsibility for the overloaded legislative agenda in Carter's first year. Mondale writes that "I probably made an ass of myself" in his sharpest disagreement with Carter.

These confessions confirm that this is the work of an honest, reflective and humble, man. That is no surprise. Mondale, after all, promised to raise taxes in his 1984 Acceptance Speech ("Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."), an example, he wryly observes, no subsequent presidential candidate has followed. "Morning in America" enticed voters at the time but our nation would be better off if Mondale's integrity was a more common public virtue and if voters appreciated straight talk as much as pleasing metaphors.

Mondale does not settle scores. Those seeking titillation should look elsewhere. Instead, Mondale's memoir provides a compelling account of the recent past, and a thoughtful prescription for the future, of American liberalism and of our political institutions, all as told by a leader who has fought "the good fight," who has built a public record few have matched, and who has retained those admirable human virtues too rarely evident in high public officials, and in the citizens they serve.