Interview With Senator Walter Mondale

August 1 1976

Interview With Senator Walter Mondale

August 1 1976

Interview With Senator Walter Mondale

Jimmy Carter's first decision after receiving the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Presidency was to name Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota as his vice-presidential running mate. Of Scandinavian background and a devout advocate of the Protestant Ethic, Mondale’s politics represent the small-town attitude of reform through incremental compromises rather than any solitary championing of ill-fated great causes. He supports only those reforms he believes can be won. After serving as a corporal during the Korean War, he entered Minnesota Law School and in 1960 was appointed state attorney general. Four years later, when Hubert Humphrey became vice-president, Mondale was chosen to serve out his senatorial term and has since been twice reelected with large majorities. During 1975, Mondale campaigned for the Presidential nomination but withdrew on November 21 by stating that he was not possessed by “the overwhelming desire to be President.’’ Mondale is an unassuming but provocative politician. He occupies that brittle middle ground between those who advocate uninhibited reforms of the system and its defenders. In this interview, which took place at his senatorial office in Washington, Mondale discusses some aspects of the Presidential campaign, the future of U.S. society and prospects for American-Canadian relations with Maclean's editor, Peter C. Newman.

Maclean’s: Do you feel any kind of political consensus emerging out of the 1976 Presidential campaign?

Mondale: Let me step from the question a minute. If you take the long view, there are some fairly optimistic developments underway. In fact, if you ask Americans whether they’re optimistic or pessimistic about the future, you’d find the optimism level has been rising very impressively. Some of that may be due to the economy, which, although still in shock from the deep recession, is picking up. More significantly, a lot of Americans have looked at our system of checks and balances, the constitutional system of representative democracy in this country, and found that it has a resilience and strength that’s really very encouraging.

Maclean’s: You regard the Watergate affair as proof of the strength of the American system rather than a sign of its degradation? Mondale: Watergate is a classic example. It proves that the system was stronger than an obsessed President.

Maclean’s: But it was only by accident that the scandal was revealed.

Mondale: Well, yes, but what I feared was having once been discovered the system would not prove able to assert itself in a way to restore constitutional balance. It did. That’s a very comforting and consoling fact which ought to make our neighbors feel very good about us even though temporarily they might not. And of course it depends on how you look at the world.


I’m convinced that our Constitution, now 200 years old, was above all a very shrewd document from the standpoint of human nature, that it correctly perceived too much power in one person is very dangerous, that the ability of government to bottle up information and censor was exceedingly dangerous. And that therefore you had to

divide government, put it under severe constraints requiring disclosure and public accountability. It has proved to be a very profound and central document for anyone interested in individual liberty and a stable society.

Maclean’s: Yet it providedfor a kind ofperpetual revolution, with each generation having the right to invent the kind of country it wanted to live in.

Móndale: Yes it did. That’s the other part of it, that’s the point I was going to get to. I think a lot of people have an unanalyzed notion that the best society is a totally tranquil and quiet one. That’s not true, in my opinion. If we’re going to change, going to reform, it requires debate, it requires disclosure, it requires elections often fought out bitterly. But it’s the only hope for long term progress.

Maclean’s: So you don’t believe there’s more corruption in the U.S. system—just more disclosure?

Mondale: That’s correct. We have proven that we can make institutions more accountable, and it’s a sound basis for being optimistic about the future of this country. Now, if we have this kind of system which is open and constitutional with its checks and balances, what course will the country decide to pursue? I believe there are several factors at work. First, that the central government has gotten too large or maybe too centralized; that it is more difficult to deliver services from the federal level than was once thought possible. Second, that it’s more difficult to achieve social justice through this concentrated delivery of services. How do you educate poor kids? How do you deal with emotional problems? How do you reform prisoners? How do you build houses? How do you clean up the air and the water? These things are much more difficult, in many ways more unyielding, than we originally thought. And for that reason I think the public wants us to be more skeptical.. .

Maclean’s: Not necessarily more conservative?

Móndale: No. More skeptical and more efficient and effective than we have been. Maclean’s: Is there such a thing as compassionate efficiency?

Móndale: I don’t know. My friend Hubert Humphrey always says that if you read the Bible from the front page to the last, read the Constitution from the first to the last, they never mention the word efficiency. Maclean’s: In Canada we have a problem with your attitude that the American way should be the cause of all mankind—your impulse to impose the American ideal on us.

Móndale: I think that too has also gone through a profound change, perhaps for the better. We ended World War II with the notion that somehow our power to influence international events was unlimited, that our wisdom to know what was best was either at hand or could shortly be at hand or obtained and that if other countries knew what was best for them they would do as we do. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but it was kind of a notion that we knew best what served the national needs of other peoples. That certainly was the Dulles policy. Other countries were either good or bad; Communist or non-Communist. There were no grey areas. We gave no ground to the national sensibijities of different nations. But the crucible of Vietnam taught us a very expensive but crucial lesson about the limits of our wisdom and the limits of our power—about the need that we have to be understanding and respectful of the history, the cultures, and the nationalistic sensibility of other societies. It’s a lesson that other Western powers learned a long time ago as their colonies collapsed. Maclean’s: If that kind of retreat from internationalism takes place, isn’t it easy to slip into isolationism?

Móndale: Yes, but I don’t think we’re doing that. We’ve learned the limits of our power. That’s what the Angola issue was about. I don’t think 10 years ago you could have had that resolution. It involved an expectation that the American people were sophisticated about nationalism, about white-black issues, about what it really takes to have your own way in another country militarily. We saw the costs and the possibilities for failure far more clearly than we could have in the pre-Vietnam era. Maclean’s: Probably your problem with Canada is that because we don’t appear that different you think we ’re the same. We suffer from the barrier of a common language. Mondale:: Absolutely. But I hope a similar realization is apparent to us concerning our relationships with Canada and vice versa as it is elsewhere. The old notion was that Canada was the North of us and was to be taken for granted, that when we coughed you got pneumonia and therefore someone said that we’ll match our problems with your resources and so on. Those days are over and should be. I think we’d be naïve not to expect Canadians to pursue their own national interests, just as the Canadians would be naïve not to consider that we will do the same. But having said that, I still think there’s a special relationship that exists, if for no other reason than that we have that long border between us. You’re our largest trading partner and vice versa. There’s just so much that requires us to try to understand each other. Not in an employer-employee relation or masterservant relation, but as two respectful national sovereignties that must simply get along with each other. That involves dialogue at the highest level. It involves responsible leadership so that we don’t stir up the know-nothings in our respective so-

cieties. It involves not expecting too much or too little. I don’t think that U.S. efforts in the past 10 years get us a very high grade. We’re starting to do a little better. For example, I think Tom Enders is a first-rate choice as our new Canadian ambassador. I hope that we’re getting more understanding, that the dialogue is intensifying and at a higher level.

Maclean’s: What is the most important fact our two countries have in common? Mondale: Preservation of the democratic ideal. How can the Westem-European democracies, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Scandinavian countries who believe in democ-


racy make it work? How can we make the democratic system seem more attractive to other nations, not to force it down their throats but to provide the example that makes us attractive? If we’re to avoid the holocaust, we must perpetuate what Walter Lippmann called the Western traditions of civility. I would like to see us doing more together, for example, in the nutrition and the hunger field. We’re both very impressive producers of agricultural products. It’s something that you people are

very good at and we’re very good at. Maybe we could take the lead more than we do now internationally in that field. You have a very high technology, we have a high technology. I’d like to see the United States and Canada raising more hell about these highly dangerous nuclear power plants. That certainly is a central issue, and while we may be saying things privately it’s not coming across publicly.

Maclean’s: What about the peddling of arms?

Mondale: Well, I think the United States is the leader there, I regret to say. But we should stand together behind a long-term position of trying to get the arms producing countries of the world to restrain sales. Issues like that we should be more together on, not just for our national interests but for the sake of a more stable world. Maclean’s: How is American society changing? Who’s in charge of the U.S. establishment now?

Móndale: The establishment, however it’s defined, has been inbred in Washington and around Washington and has been in power for so long that its perceptions are not to be totally trusted. I mean the selling of David Halberstam’s book The Best And The Brightest, these attacks on the multinationals have created increasing skepticism. Also there was, of course, the failure of the Vietnam war, where the establishment tried very hard to keep the nation sewed together behind that effort. Maclean’s: Do you consider the whole concept of small “l” liberalism to be discredited? Móndale: No, I don’t think so. The term liberalism, I wouldn’t use that. I think there’s still some profoundly shared concepts of social justice in this country that are not disappearing, that are around, very much so. I saw some public opinion polls recently that asked Americans, “Are we spending too much?” and by and large they would say “Yes.” “Do you want to cut the programs that are important for health, education, housing, etc?” Overwhelmingly the response was “No.” “Are you really then for prudent and careful expenditure of funds to seek these objectives .. .?” Response: “Yes.” Well, that’s not a bad position. People are behind social reform, but they don’t want to waste money. That’s probably just about right.

Maclean’s: Is Jimmy Carter’s optimism his main appeal?

Móndale: Yes, and he’s continuing to stress the point that it’s the people who are to be trusted.

Maclean’s: It’s a notion that runs right through American history—the idea of an inexorable tension between the people and their government.

Móndale: The whole thrust of our Constitution is basically a distrust of government. The birth of this nation wasn’t an affirmation but a distrust of power. It was the people who were going to protect democracy and it was the government who was going to threaten it. Everything followed from that. f?