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Straight talk with Walter Mondale

An exclusive interview with Former Vice President Walter Fritz Mondale, newly elected Honorary Consul General for Norway in Minnesota by Nordic Reach editor and publisher Ulf Mårtensson.

Catching up on New York Times's report from Obama's speech at the Xcel stadium, St Paul the previous night: Early morning with former senator, vice president and ambassador Walter Mondale at his home in the Mill City area of Minneapolis. Photo: Henrik Olund
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It’s early morning. We arrive at a stately residence, located right along the Mississippi River in the historic Mill City area overlooking Stone Arch Bridge. Once the main feeder between the Twin Cities, it is now a walk and bike path connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Meeting with the former senator, vice president and ambassador at this home on this particular morning is special. Obama spoke at the Xcel stadium in St. Paul the previous night, the capstone of his campaign. The vice president has just gotten off the phone with one of the national radio channels, having spoken with Senator Hillary Clinton earlier; after months of steadfastly loyal support of Clinton, Mondale this morning, for the good of the party, has announced his support for Obama.

The former vice president has the deserved reputation of being as stand up, honest and straight an arrow as they come here in America’s heartland—what once was the epicenter of Scandinavian settlement in the nineteenth century.

The Scandinavian-American community could use his steady hand at the moment. The Foreign Ministry of Norway announced in late 2007 that it would close the Norwegian career consulate general in Minneapolis, rendering it an honorary consulate general. Mondale became its honorary consul general on Aug. 1, 2008.

Although the transition could be considered a setback for Norwegian interests in the region, Mondale is far from pessimistic looking into the future.

“As a Norwegian, you just keep plugging along. Rather than sit here and wallow in regrets over the closing, we looked at what we want to achieve and where we want to go, where is the future?" Mondale says. "A committee has been hard at work for months; we have the approach now, we just have to implement it.”

The new Honorary Consulate General handles fewer of the traditional consular matters, but has three full-time officers in the same location as the earlier government-run consulate. “One person will be expanding and enhancing the business connection to increase the common economic activity between the regions, another will work with education, high-tech research institutions and technology transfer. [My] fellow Norwegian-American and Honorary Consul Gary L. Gandrud will handle the essential business and legal work,” Mondale explains.

Engagement on the part of the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is such that it seems the Foreign Ministry in Norway has made a real commitment to make the Minnesota honorary consulate general a special case among the honorary representations. And Mondale, in spite of the fact that he just turned 80, says he will do his best to make this consulate general more meaningful than many other honorary consulates general.

His sense of loyalty, his sense of giving back is deep-rooted—in generations of hard-working Norwegian ancestors and in his own good fortune. “I could not afford to go to law school and took advantage of the G.I. Bill, served for two years and the army paid for university,” he explains. “The G.I. Bill made all the difference in my life. It is one of the best programs in American history – I am now pushing to get Iraqi veterans the same opportunity today, so they can go home and get a decent education.”

Education, economic fairness and fiscal responsibility are reflected in much of Mondale’s work in public office—while in the Senate, he served on the Finance Committee, the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, Budget Committee, and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

“We have been in a big struggle here in America over the last decades,” he says. “There are those of us who believe that the U.S. does better if you give every youngster an opportunity to learn and be educated; we see that as an investment. While we want free, competitive enterprise, we don’t think it’s self-correcting. If they make mistakes we need regulation, we need accountability. At this time we’re in the midst of some very severe financial problems through the sub-prime crisis, from abuse of privilege in high positions in capital – we need some public protections built in.”

“There is a rule for government, not that government is always the right thing or will always do the right thing – but there are things that need to get done. As Lincoln said, ‘there are things we cannot do or cannot do as well by ourselves, where government is required,’” quotes the statesman.

“There’s been a fever in this country over the last twenty years that government is the problem, government always fails. Let capitalism go where it wants to and glorious things will happen. I think that we need to be careful about government, but there are things we need to do, like protecting the environment—it won’t happen, will simply not be done unless we have regulations. This is changing rapidly now. A strong economy requires regulations. We need to educate the next generation, which involves schools and public support for those schools.”

While speaking and listening to neighbors and friends, Mondale can clearly sense that Americans want change in a long range of fundamental areas.

“We need to decide as a nation that we need to change course with regard to some fundamental principles that have been around for a while and that have failed,” he notes. “In order to solve problems like healthcare, opportunities for our young, the environmental crisis, or the dissolving of the middle class, it’s going to require a strong public policy: The free market is not self-correcting, and a lot of the tremendous damage that’s occurred to the American economy is the result of a failure to properly regulate certain sectors.”

Americans’ concerns do and should extend beyond our borders as well, he says.

“Internationally, we can’t go it alone, the way we did, can’t be full of hubris and certainty about a world as complex and as dangerous as the one in which we now live. I am certain we will see a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy so that we reunite with our friends and listen to our allies and once again, connect with the best thinking. And strengthen America by doing so. We need friends; we need allies. We need to hear what other people know, as well as what we know. We need to combine the strengths of all of us in dealing with real problems,” Mondale stresses. “The idea of the ‘Allies of the willing’ or, ‘we’ll do what we please and the others will come along’ – that has failed. And we’re going to go back to, I’m sure, what our founding fathers once said: ‘America should show a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.’”

Spending on education, schooling and healthcare may be expensive, Mondale acknowledges, but he considers not spending in those areas more expensive. He also sees some natural ways to actually save through the right policies: “$400 million was spent on the bridge that collapsed last year here in Minneapolis. We can build many bridges like that from what we spend one week in Iraq. We have to find a way to get out of the war in Iraq in a responsible way. And we have to somehow get a dialogue going with [for example] Iran, which has become much stronger through what we’ve done in Iraq. [They] may be building nuclear weapons and the idea so far has been to never talk to them. How does it harm America to see if we can talk this thing through? Build pressure, all right, but try to see if we can’t achieve something through diplomacy. We talked to Russia, China, and Korea—why couldn’t we talk to Iran? And see what diplomacy might add to it.”

In Mondale’s vision of a future America one thing stands out at every turn – cooperation. Working together, and listening, to find the right solutions. When he visited his ancestral home Mundal in Norway with a grandson in 2007—his eighth trip back to the old homeland—it was for the inaugural ceremony of the new Glacier Center in the area. When he first went to Mundal, the glacier extended all the way down the mountain; today there’s a big gap between the glacier and the fjord.

“The environment is a very tough, long-term, profound set of issues we and the rest of the world need to work together to resolve. We must do something now to draw back from the abyss, and it’s going to take strong leadership from all governments, all nations. Especially the U.S. must lead. We need to work together with China and other developing countries to solve these issues; if not this will be a very nasty trick to visit upon our children and grandchildren.”

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale are the longest-living post-presidential team in American history. And “still adding to the record as we sit here,” adds the relaxed former VP, who’s been out of office for 27 years in 2008. While scholars agree that Mondale was a breakthrough figure in turning the vice president’s office into an important part of the executive branch during his tenure, he has publicly criticized Vice President Cheney, whose actions he feels suggest that the office of the vice president was turned into an independent power center. He has spoken out strongly about what he feels is the Bush administration’s deliberate policy to ignore written laws and America’s constitutional principles.

“This is also something we’ve been going through over the last 8 years: The idea of a Presidency that is unaccountable under our constitutional system of government, which does not have to respond to the checks and balances of our federal system and can disregard laws it believes stands in its way of doing what it thinks it should do. I believe this is at war with the American constitutional system; the last thing they wanted was an imperial president. I think we’ve gone through that in recent years, at great cost. The Iraq war may be the biggest single self-imposed tragic mistake in American history. It’s a sign of what happens when you don’t have accountability,” Mondale says.

And yet, the great-great-grandson of a Norwegian settler from Mundal, Norway, -- who was the first white farmer near Albert Lea, MN -- remains positive about our way forward.

“Our country has in its people an enormous source of reform power. We have time and time again proven this. America has caught itself, readjusted its course and returned to its basic core. I think that’s what’s happening now. We tried this new approach, it’s been a flop, very expensive and we need to get out of it.
Right now 75% of the American people say we’re on the wrong track. You’re going to see a lot of change in American public policy through the coming few years.”

Mondale says that in looking back on his own time in office with Jimmy Carter, he took pride in three claims: "We told the truth; we obeyed the law; and we kept the peace."

Written by Ulf Barslund Martensson
Photographed by Henrik Olund

On MySpace
Mondale’s MySpace site, which he’s unaware of when we meet, already listed Obama as one of his top friends prior to his endorsement of the Senator. “I won’t take responsibility,” says Mondale laughing. “Somebody told me about Wikipedia, where people can put in whatever they want into, in my name. I tried to correct some of it…somebody decided I had a pet rooster, somebody else said I was an international opera talent, but I decided not to go into it, and you know what… this is bull.”

'There’s a Fjord in his Past'
Born in Ceylon, MN, Mondale entered politics early, already making a name for himself at the age of 20 by helping organize Hubert Humphrey’s successful Senate campaign in 1948. In 1960, at 32 and only four years out of law school, Mondale became Attorney General of Minnesota. Four years later, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy caused by Hubert Humphrey’s election to the Vice Presidency. In 1966, Mondale defeated his Republican opponent and served almost two full terms prior to his election to Vice President in 1976.

After serving as Senator in the 88th through 94th U.S. Congresses, he was selected as Former President Jimmy Carter’s running mate in 1976, and became the 42nd Vice President when was sworn in in 1977. Carter and Mondale were renominated in 1980 but lost to Former President Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Mondale ran for and won the Democratic nomination. He ran with U.S. representative Geraldine A. Ferarro of New York as his running mate and lost in a landslide to the popular incumbent. Later, during the Clinton Administration, he served as Ambassador to Japan between 1993 and 1996.

Tracing his Norwegian ancestry, Mondale asked to see a copy of his great-great-grandfather’s Civil War records, only to learn there was no such thing: No Mondale or Mundals had served in the war. And yet Mondale knew that his ancestor had served. The explanation: The hard-working young man had arrived in 1857, as Fredrik Petersen. In 1864, he accepted $400 to replace a man drafted into the Civil War—the draft at the time included a loophole for the wealthy, who could avoid service if they could find a replacement. Three months later, Mondale finally received the records, the papers signed with an ‘X.” (“He couldn’t write English and his name was Petersen since, I guess, his father was Peter,” Mondale said. “Somebody else wrote his name, then he signed with an X.”) After the Civil War, Petersen returned, unscathed, to Minnesota and received a piece of land, on the deed to which a harried clerk had transposed his last name and birthplace—transforming Fredrik Petersen from Mundal into “Fredrik Mondale.”

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