One characteristic I found underplayed in the many fine obituaries of former Vice President Mondale, notably Steve Weisman’s excellent account of a life well lived in The New York Times, is Mondale’s wonderful, self-deprecatory humor. He was, simply, one of the most delightful, engaging and modest politicians I have ever covered. And I have covered a lot of them.
One small story to illustrate: while he was Vice President, Mondale set off on an ambitious, 28,000-mile tour of southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand to outline the Carter’s Administration’s policy towards that vital portion of the world. As White House Correspondent for The New York Times, I was one of a handful of reporters who accompanied him on Air Force II the whole, exhausting way.
The trip didn’t generate much real news, but the reporters and staff and Mondale bonded as the miles went by, kidding each other about everything. The Vice President had private quarters up front in the aircraft, but often came back to kibbitz with the reporters and we, in turn, would rib him about the sparse crowds on the tarmac as the big plane, with United States of America emblazoned across it, landed at Bangkok, Manilla, Jakarta and Canberra. “They’ve never heard of you,” we’d say, “they have no idea who you are.”
Mondale took the ribbing until we landed at our last stop, Wellington, New Zealand, and spotted a large crowd with placards waiting near the hangar. We couldn’t read the signs at a distance, but had to admit it was a big turnout.
“See? Mondale exulted. “ Look at that crowd! I’m big here in New Zealand, they love me here.”
Mondale was in Wellington to meet with the conservative, well-fed Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, universally known by his constituents as “Piggy” Muldoon.
As the big plane turned at the end of the runway and taxied towards the crowd, we could finally begin to read the placards. “Mondale-Muldoon, An Encounter of the Turd Kind,” several of them read, with the demonstrators shaking their fists at the plane.
The press ruffians in the back laughed at Mondale. But here’s the thing, Mondale laughed the longest and loudest of all.