Walter (Fritz) Mondale was my contemporary and my friend.
We first met during the summer of 1964 when he was Attorney General of Minnesota and a protégé of Hubert Humphrey, then a Senator from Minnesota and a contender to be Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. I was, more or less, a protégé of Iowa Governor Harold Hughes and one of his campaign managers for his re-election campaign.
The issue that brought Fritz and me together was the effort of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to have its delegates seated at the upcoming Atlantic City convention of the national Democratic Party, displacing the totally segregated delegation from Mississippi’s regular Democratic Party. This highly emotional effort had generated intense public interest. It also had captured the total attention of President Johnson, because Johnson, rightly or wrongly, believed that Robert Kennedy, then Johnson’s Attorney General, was actively seeking to displace him and was using the MFPD as fuel to blow up the convention and open it up to Kennedy.
Johnson needed to crush the Kennedy effort and he believed the key to that was to solve the MFDP problem without a floor fight. And that meant finding an acceptable compromise. So far, all efforts at compromise had failed and the convention was fast approaching. Thus it was that Johnson approached two of his then strongest supporters, Humphrey and Hughes, and asked them to name two men to lead the fight for a compromise at the convention. The request to Humphrey was accompanied by a veiled promise and threat regarding his possible selection as Johnson’s Vice President.
Humphrey gave the task to Mondale, and Hughes gave the task to me. So, prior to the opening of the convention, Mondale was made chairman of a special five person committee that was charged with finding a compromise, and I was made counsel to that committee. For five intense days and nights, we met, discussed and argued, negotiated with the MFDP leaders and their sponsors, and brought to bear all the pressure we could manage.
Ultimately, and just as the convention convened, we reached an agreement: MFDP would have just a few of its delegates seated as delegates “at large”, and the regular and segregated Mississippi delegation would have to pledge support of our anti-segregation platform. Most importantly, the national Party would resolve that, in future, no segregated delegation would ever be seated.
Johnson was delighted: A floor fight had been avoided, and, in his mind, Robert Kennedy’s plan had been frustrated. We all were rewarded, although some rewards were considerably better than others: Humphrey became Vice President; Mondale was appointed to take his place as Senator from Minnesota; and I, ultimately, was brought to the White House as a presidential assistant.
Fritz and I remained friends, even occasionally sharing dinners together at each other’s homes.
Years later, Fritz and I had a unique encounter.
My wife, Peggy, and I had been invited to a picnic at the waterfront home of our friends Arthur and Barbara Rothkopf. We had arrived on our sailboat which we anchored just offshore and rowed our dinghy into shore. Fritz Mondale and his wife, Joan were also there.
This was in the late 1980s, several years after Mondale’s resounding defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1984. In that presidential election, Fritz lost every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and he received only 40.6% of the popular vote. It was one of the most decisive political thrashings in American history.
When Fritz saw me, he said that he would like to look at our boat more closely. He asked if I would row him out, which I happily agreed to do.
When he climbed on board, it was immediately apparent that he had no interest in the boat. Instead, to my surprise, he wanted to talk about his defeat by Reagan. He began by briefly chiding me for not participating in his campaign, brushing aside my feeble explanation that, as a trial lawyer, I had been deeply involved in some ongoing litigation.
Then he turned to what was really on his mind.
He told me that, even after all the years that had passed, he still could not stop himself from constantly reliving that campaign and what he thought of as the ignominy of his defeat. His never ending remorse caused him unrelenting mental pain, he said. It was not just that he lost, but that he was so completely rejected. Before that, he had always succeeded in everything he had tried to accomplish, but there was no sugar coating what Reagan had done to him. He said that his feelings would not go away.
I sat with him, carefully listening to every word, for well over an hour; long enough so that my wife and others at the picnic were concerned about what was happening out on our boat where all they knew was that these two men were sitting in the cockpit talking, endlessly
Ultimately, Fritz stood up and asked me to row him back to shore. He was no happier and I was in despair that there was nothing that I could offer to ease the unending pain of this marvelous man who was my friend.
Sherwin Markman was a special assistant to LBJ until 1968. He went on to work as a senior trial lawyer for Hogan & Hartson until 1992. He is the author of a novel, “The Election”, and the editor of “Lyndon Johnson Remembered: An Intimate Portrait of a President.” He now lives on the Eastern Shore.