The more I witness the Presidential race, the more I am drawn back to my visits last fall with two of Minnesota’s most enduring and beloved statesmen, Walter Mondale and Al Quie.
By happenstance, we came together on separate occasions and did not discuss politics as such but just chatted similar to the visits in Tuesdays With Morrie.
Both men have common backgrounds, education, and views of public service. They were small-town Minnesotans raised at a time when luxuries such as electricity and running water were just coming to rural parts of our state. Both were Norwegian (from this Swede’s perspective, a clear handicap), both had strong religious backgrounds, and both were grounded in old traditions of prudency, hard work, and modesty.
As products of the Great Depression, they witnessed the devastating harm inflicted on families. Everyone was deprived; some more than others. Yet, there was a sense of community; an understanding that together we can make it.
Yes, Mondale and Quie were products of the “Greatest Generation” and their lives reflect those values.
Like so many of that generation, they served in the Armed Forces and came home to resume their education and careers. Both were drawn early into politics and public service. And both were instant successes. Mondale at age 32 became Attorney General of Minnesota and went on to the U.S. Senate, Vice-President and later as Ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton. In 1984, he was the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee.
Al Quie was 33 when elected to the Minnesota Legislature but also continued to farm. He later went on to a 21-year career in Congress and in, 1978, was elected Governor.
Philosophically, they took different paths with Mondale serving as a more progressive liberal in the Humphrey tradition while Quie would follow a path of constructive conservatism in the tradition of Gerald Ford.
But their approaches to politics and public policy were surprisingly similar. They elevated political contests with a sense of decency and truthfulness that by today’s standards would be most refreshing. They did not celebrate money nor would they permit any interest to be greater than the well being of the whole.
Mondale and Quie understood the true meaning of public service and would never compromise the integrity of their office for any reason whatsoever.
As a matter of fact, their deep attachment to the highest standard of truthfulness and integrity caused them to pay a steep political price.
For Mondale, it was his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 1984. Looking at the rising deficits, he declared his support for a tax increase in order to bring the budget closer to balance. The political pundits were shocked.
Regardless of the fallout, Mondale knew he had to tell the truth to the people he served. As it turned out, he lost the election but he was right; taxes were raised.
For Al Quie, his moment came when as Governor he was beset by a series of revenue shortfalls and had to cut budgets. Finally, he declared that he could not “cut to the bone” and agreed to a tax increase. Again, he knew it was the right thing to do but that it could bring his elective service to an end.
In today’s political world awash with money, political consultants, polls, candidate pandering, and instant media analysis, it is refreshing to reflect on the courage and inner confidence of two leaders who placed such a premium on truthfulness.
In so many ways they understood what we have yet to learn and that is that democracy is not all about receiving but also giving and that “we” has greater value than “I”. Governing is not about personal or party victories but rather a shared responsibility protective of our children’s future. Therein lies the greater good.
Walter Mondale and Al Quie have defined public service and governance for us. Now can we accept this challenge?