It was perhaps fitting that Walter F. Mondale died on the same day and in same city that one of the most momentous trials in the nation’s history went to the jury. As significant a figure as this son of southern Minnesota was — and he was significant — he always seemed overshadowed.

Three men served Minnesota in the U.S. Senate during the 1960s — Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Mondale. All three Democrats sought the presidency. Two of them, Humphrey and Mondale, achieved the vice presidency and won their party’s nomination, while the third forced an incumbent Democrat to abandon his re-election hopes.

It was an impressive array of talent produced by one party in one middling-sized state.

The Democratic Party had been, in effect, the third party in Minnesota. The Republican Party was dominant, and the Farmer-Labor Party could occasionally win statewide elections. In the 1950s Humphrey — with significant help from others, including Mondale — engineered the merger of the Democrats and the Farmer-Laborites into the DFL, and the DFL has been the dominant party in this state for more than half a century, with Mondale always somewhere in the picture.

Mondale, of course, was blown out in the 1984 presidential election by Ronald Reagan; he carried only the District of Columbia and his home state, that latter narrowly.

History will remember Mondale for that trouncing. It will also remember him for having selected a woman as his running mate — Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman on a major party ticket. And, perhaps most significantly, Mondale will be remembered as a dividing line in the role of the vice president.

For generations, presidents kept their No. 2 at arm’s length or worse. Vice presidents’ constitutionally assigned duties are to preside over the Senate and take over if the presidency is vacated. Almost invariably, they were selected on the basis of perceived electoral value, not with an eye to a significant role in the administration. The anecdotes of their irrelevance, and of the contempt with which they were often regarded by the president, are numerous.

That changed with Mondale. President Jimmy Carter gave Mondale an office in the West Wing, consulted with him regularly and made Mondale a prominent figure in his administration. It set a pattern that has been followed by every president since, with the possible exception of the first George Bush and Dan Quayle.

State attorney general. U.S. senator. Vice president. Presidential nominee. Ambassador to Japan. It is an impressive range of public service, and if Fritz Mondale never made it to the very top, he always gave Minnesota reason to be proud of him.

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