Halfway through Walter Mondale’s Thursday town meeting at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.—his first as a 2002 Senate candidate—a young man rises to praise Mondale’s “humility.” He thanks the candidate for understanding that “you can’t stand in for Paul Wellstone. You can only be Vice President Mondale, and hopefully Sen. Mondale.”
It’s a very strange moment in this very strange campaign, which completed its first full day Thursday and will wrap up Tuesday. It’s shocking that Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash a week ago. It’s wild that a week later, the Democrats have not only a new candidate but a bigger lead in the polls. But the campaign is even weirder because this candidate is so old, savvy, and accomplished. If Frank Lautenberg’s entry into the New Jersey Senate race was like a college basketball player rejoining his high-school team, Mondale’s entry into the Minnesota race is like a pro player doing the same. It upends the conventional dynamics of the game.
Start with this business about humility. An ordinary campaign stand-in would look small trying to fill a senator’s shoes. Not Mondale. He’s “only” been vice president of the United States—the job he won after he was Sen. Mondale. There was more suspense about whether he would deign to run again than there is about whether he’ll win. When Mondale holds a brief news conference Thursday morning at Democratic campaign headquarters in Minneapolis, a swarm of national reporters hangs on his words. At the afternoon town meeting, a member of the Macalester board of directors boasts that Mondale was a student of a legendary Macalester professor. Legendary? Here’s what that professor will be remembered for: He taught Walter Mondale.
Ordinary Senate candidates look confused or sneaky because they hedge their answers. Not Mondale. He’s too old to give a damn what people think. He knows what he believes and expresses it bluntly. In an interview on Minnesota Public Radio Thursday, he calls President Bush’s tax cut a “disaster” and says Bush’s pullout from the Kyoto global warming treaty was “dead wrong.” When asked at the town meeting about Bush’s approach to cleaning up toxic waste, Mondale replies, “It’s awful.”
The reason politicians as old and accomplished as Mondale don’t run for office is that they have no patience for the grind and degradation of begging for money and votes. Mondale doesn’t have to do that. There’s no time for it. “I’m not going to make one phone call for money,” he declares at his press conference, as though this were a matter of principle. The free ride infuriates Norm Coleman, Mondale’s Republican opponent. For two days, Coleman has flown around the state decrying Mondale’s “coronation” and insisting that the winner of the race must “work for it.”
Ordinary Senate candidates have to be briefed on things that happened two years ago. Mondale puts current events in a historical context going back decades. At Macalester, girls in bellbottoms and boys in earrings stare reverently as he recalls his experiences in the civil rights movement, the Camp David peace talks, and the struggle to end apartheid. He shoots down a peacenik’s question about Iraq by talking about the Nazi era from the standpoint of someone who lived through it.
What can Coleman do against the advantages of age? He can exploit the disadvantages. In visits to the far corners of the state this week, he has framed the race as a choice between the past and the future, between a candidate from the Cold War era and a “post-9/11” candidate who will “work continuously with energy and vigor.” Coleman likens Mondale to Mount Rushmore, a clever comparison that makes Mondale seem not only venerable but inanimate.
In person, however, Mondale defies this portrayal. His posture is firm; his gestures are fluid; his hands tap impatiently on his knees. At the town meeting, he stands and fields questions for nearly an hour, ignoring the stool his handlers have left onstage for him. He bends casually to set his glass of water on the floor, and just as casually retrieves it.
Coleman implies that Mondale isn’t up to speed on current events, but that charge doesn’t fly. Mondale discusses dozens of issues with ease. He explains how Medicare came to neglect prescription drugs. He mentions exactly how long the McCain-Feingold bill languished in Congress. When asked about Iraq, he defends the Levin Amendment (offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.), which would have tempered the congressional war resolution. On the radio show, he corrects a question about Bush’s steel tariff: “I think that it did not extend to ore and that it permitted slab steel to come in.”
You have to feel for Coleman. Reflecting on Wellstone’s death, Mondale tells the Macalester students, “It’s like the world turned upside down—like one of Shakespeare’s plays, where they were preparing for a wedding, but they had a funeral.” That was the play that ended at Wellstone’s memorial service Tuesday. The play that concludes next Tuesday has a different plot: They prepared for a funeral and ended up with a wedding.