By Menachem Wecker
The 2009-10 Public Affairs Project Conversation Series kicked off on Sept. 23 with a conversation between Frank Sesno, director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, and Walter Mondale, former vice president of the United States, presidential hopeful, U.S. senator and Minnesota attorney general.
The conversation, which was held in the Jack Morton Auditorium, included a screening of the new documentary “Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story,” directed by Melody Gilbert. The film examines Mondale’s career in public service and his personal life, with frequent commentary from his family and friends.
In his introduction, Sesno told the sold-out audience, which included Mondale’s wife, other family members and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), that the first political campaign of his broadcast career was the 1984 election in which Mondale ran for president. Mondale made history in that election by selecting Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman vice presidential candidate. “His life has been dedicated to public service,” Sesno said. “It still is.”
Sesno began by asking Mondale what it was like to be back in Washington, where the burning issues included health care reform, the economic crisis, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mondale agreed that a lot has changed since the 1970s, when he served in the Carter administration. He said the changes started with the rise of “economic fundamentalists,” who value private capital above all else and who think that government and regulations always fail.
In his day, Mondale said he always had the “substantial bipartisan support” of 20 senators he could work with on everything, and debates, though heated, were rational. But today, a “great wall divides America,” and there is a lot of nastiness in politics, which makes the health reform debate “discouraging” to watch, he said. “I don’t think the American people like it. They’re probably blaming both sides.”
Asked if some of the nastiness is racially motivated, as former President Jimmy Carter has recently suggested, Mondale said several times that he is uncomfortable pointing fingers at individuals, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). Still, having lived through the American civil rights movement and the racism it fought, Mondale said, “I know some of that must still be around.”
“The way they are piling on Obama – the harshness, you can kind of feel it – you wonder if somewhere there are other issues lurking,” he said.
Mondale had plenty of praise for President Obama, who he said is doing well despite having to confront a “killer range of issues.” The president has also picked an excellent cabinet, according to Mondale, including Robert Gates, who “will go down as a historically superb secretary of defense,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I feel good about Obama,” he said.
When Sesno insisted that Mondale provide one area in which there is room for improvement for the president, Mondale suggested that Obama could be more forceful. “Having served in the Senate, I would say he has to learn how to push a little harder,” Mondale said.
“I love public life. I wanted to stay in public life longer than the public wanted me,” said Mondale. He called his failure to get elected in 1984 his saddest moment, and his and President Carter’s election in 1976 his happiest moment.
“I wasn’t entirely certain we were going to get elected,” he said, “and when we did, I liked it.”
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