When leaders of the past pass away, it reminds us of the passage of time.
The death of Walter Mondale had me first saying, “That was a long time ago when he was vice president, and when he ran for president.” It is impossible to talk about our memories of
history without dating ourselves. I will confess that while I do remember the Carter
administration, the first presidential election that I remember clearly, while not a real nail-biter, was the election of 1984.
I grew up in Queens, and we were exuberant when Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his
running mate, making history as the first woman to run on a major national ticket.
Congresswoman Ferraro lived maybe 20 minutes away from our house. Growing up as a Jew
from Queens in the 1980s, my childhood was made up of various loyalties: Conservative
Judaism when the older folks at shul still had Eastern European accents, liberal Democratic
politics, unions, the neighborhood pizza place, watching “The Return of the Jedi” with school
buddies and younger brothers over and over at the local movie theater, Mets baseball and Jets
football (the latter still played at Shea Stadium). And every avenue was lined with
I remember the excitement I felt when I procured one of those posters and put it in my
window, facing out to 187th Street in Fresh Meadows. On election night my eyes were glued to Dan Rather, until my parents made me go to sleep, explaining that it would make no difference who won in Hawaii. (Walter Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.)
Reflecting back now, I don’t know if I appreciated what a great friend Walter Mondale was to
the Jewish people. How he built a rapport with Menachem Begin that helped bring about the
Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978. How he was one of the few
members of Congress to attend the dedication of the Knesset building in Jerusalem in 1966.
How as recently as 2007 he distanced himself from President Carter’s harsh criticism of Israel. What I do remember was how he stood down President Reagan’s overwhelming charisma with plain honesty and commitment to principle. I remember how he stated what he stood for without apology. And I remember his gracefulness in defeat.
Vice President Mondale likely lost the election when he said he would raise taxes. But he
succeeded in teaching me and so many in my generation that winning an election is not as
important as standing up for what you believe in.
Many years later, I was a young rabbi agitating at a Rabbinical Assembly convention for rights for LGBTQ Jews, and I went home having failed to get a procedural motion that would have paved a path for change passed. I debriefed with one of my teachers and fellow advocates the next day, and I remember that he said, “Don’t worry, David, you fought the good fight, and we will have another day.”
We did have another day, but that was later. At that time, we only had the good fight, words
that Walter Mondale chose as the title of his memoir in 2010. I think back now to those early
years, when I stayed up late rooting for the candidate who understood that leadership was
about principle, not power.
That was a transformative lesson for any kid to learn.