Remarks at a Memorial Service for Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Thank you. Thank you, Amy. What Fritz is really saying looking down is, "Joe, hide your Irish Catholic enthusiasm a little bit and be more Norwegian." [Laughter]
A generous introduction. You know, we got a chance to talk with the family a little bit earlier and trying to console them, and I got emotional. But as my Grandfather Finnegan would say, "That's the Irish of it." [Laughter]
You know, I served with Fritz a long time. He became a good and close friend. I was a kid when I got elected. I wasn't even old enough to be sworn in. I was only 29 years old. And because everything is based on seniority in the Senate, I got to hang out with folks like Fritz and Hubert long before you'd ordinarily at my age—because by the time I was there a second term, I was chairman of some major committees.
And so I'm going to talk more today about Fritz and what he pretend didn't exist but Fritz's sense of empathy. Fritz had a special way about him that I don't think he would talk about. I could be wrong, but I never heard him talk about it.
You know, there was a question that Fritz famously asked staffers who came to work for him. He'd say, "On the breakfast plate, what's the difference between the eggs and the bacon?" Senator Smith and Klobuchar know the answer. [Laughter] By supplying the eggs, the chicken made a contribution. The hog was fully committed. [Laughter]
And it always surprised Fritz I knew a little about agriculture. Delaware, my State, has a—the Delmarva Peninsula has a $5 billion industry: chickens. A lot of chickens, a hell of a lot more chickens than people. And it's the biggest industry.
But Fritz was always committed not merely to the work of his lifetime, which all of you are familiar with. Most people know, most of all, everybody was blessed to know him in this State.
You know, Reverend Hart-Andersen, Members of Congress and our military, distinguished guests; most of all, the Mondale family—Ted and William, and Rebecca and Chan; all the grandchildren—Louis, Amanda, Berit, Charlotte, Cassandra, Danielle; and all the dear friends of the family that are here as well, because he always talked about you all as family: I'm moved to be with you here today as an—honor one of the great giants in American history. And that's not hyperbole. Fritz was a giant in American political history.
You know, a great American who—but he also had a lot of great Americans write about him and write things that related to him without them even knowing it. The great American novelist Edith Wharton wrote, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be a candle or the mirror that reflects it." Fritz was both the candle and the mirror, in my view, a candle spreading light and the mirror reflecting it. And today I speak of a friend of five decades, about that light, the light of friendship and what it meant to me personally, to my family.
Fritz and I first met in one of the darkest moments of my life. I had not intended to run for the United States Senate. I was involved—my State, to its great shame, was segregated by law. We have the eighth largest Black population in America as a percent of population in Delaware. I got involved in politics indirectly by getting involved in the civil rights movement as a kid, being the only White employee in east side of Wilmington, an area called "The Bucket," for years.
And I was asked by a group of senior Democrats would I—I was a young lawyer when I came back from law school. And we were the only city in America occupied by the National Guard for 10 months, with every corner being occupied by a National Guard member with a drawn bayonet because of Dr. King's assassination and the riots that took place in my home State.
And I had a job with one of the oldest law firms in the State, a "white shoe," as they used to call them, law firm. And after being home for 6 months, I couldn't do it anymore. And I left and tried to—sought a job as a public defender to represent the people I used to work with in the—as a kid in high school and college.
And so I came to the United States Senate with a passion to do something about civil rights. And when I was elected, I ran initially for the group—with a group I joined, a group of senior members of the United States—of the Delaware Democratic establishment to reform the Democratic Party, because we were more a southern Democratic Party than a northeastern Democratic Party. You used to be able to be joined—the Southern Governors' Conference with the Mid-Atlantic Conference. And Democratic Governors joined the Southern Governors' Conference.
But I couldn't bring myself to be a Republican, even though they were more progressive, because of Richard Nixon when I registered.
But I was asked to head up a committee of younger people to try to get someone to run for the United States Senate against a guy who was a decent guy, actually. A little too conservative, but a decent guy. And one thing led to another, and I ended up being asked to run for the Senate. I had no intention of running for the Senate.
But, 2 years earlier, I had been elected to the county council. And Delaware is like a miniature Illinois. One county is 60 percent of the State's population. So, as a councilperson, I represented a district seven times as large as a State representative and three times as large as a State senator.
And I ran and won. I ran only to be a good soldier to try to get out Democrats voting. And I wasn't supposed to win. The only reason I ran—I was certain I wasn't going to win—because I didn't want to be a county councilman. [Laughter] I wanted—I was just setting up a law firm as a young Senator—as a young man, I should say.
And so what happened was, I won in a district that was, like, 55-, 56-percent Republican. No Democrat had ever won. Republicans saw something in me I didn't see: They saw someone who may want to go on and run for office beyond that, so they reapportioned me from a 4-year term to a 2-year term, you know, 65-percent district.
And I was put in a position of up or out. And a group of senior members—a former Governor, a former United States Senator, a former Congressman, and the Chief Justice of the—retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose family had more Senators than any family in American history. And they came to me—an off-year convention.
I'll never forget I was—how classic it was. I was—there was a break in the convention in Dover, Delaware. I was at a little motel nearby. Had to go back and change with the younger people I was with. And I had my own room. And you know, the typical kind of—you drive up to the front door, two headboards nailed on the wall, a desk nailed to the other wall, and an 8-by-10 bathroom.
So I was in, shaving. I had my towel around. Man, I just got a shower and shaving, and I—there's banging at the door. And I thought it was one of those—a guy named Bob Cunningham was with me. I said, "All right, all right, all right." I went to the door and opened the door. There was a former two-term Governor named Elbert—Elbert Carvel, a former Congressman named Harrison, and the State chairman, and a former Chief Justice.
And I'm standing in a towel, shaving, and my—[laughter]—and the rest of me stark naked. And I said—they said, "We want to talk to you, Joe." So I said, "Well, come in, gentlemen." I ran into the bathroom, take off the shaving cream, hoping I can find something to put on. I had nothing to put on. [Laughter]
So I came back out, and I leaned against that desk and with a towel around me. I said, "Yes, gentlemen?" [Laughter] And they said: "Joe, we just had dinner. We think you should run for the Senate." And I said, "But"—and the Chief Justice—former Chief Justice—[inaudible]—said that. I said, "Sir." I said, "I'm not old enough." He said, "Joe, you obviously didn't do very well on constitutional law." [Laughter] I'm thinking, "Holy God, what did I do now?" [Laughter] And he said, "You only have to be 30 to be sworn in. They can elect you whenever you want. You'll be 30 17 days later.
Well, I ran, and, to the shock and surprise of everybody, I won by a staggering 3,100 votes.
But here's the point: I showed up on December 18 to hire staff. I hadn't been sworn in yet. And what happened was that I had gotten a phone call that day from my fire department in Delaware. And they put a poor young woman on the phone who said: "You've got to come home. There's been an accident." And she went on to tell me—the poor kid had to tell me there was an accident. I asked, "What happened?" She said, "Your wife and daughter are dead, and your two boys may not make it."
And you know, the last thing I wanted to do was go to the United States Senate after that. We had elected a Governor, a Democrat. He could appoint a Democrat. And I had my brother talking to him about who we'd appoint.
But there was Fritz and Joan. They embraced me, contacted me. And it's not just being nice, but bringing me in. They came to the hospital to see my boys. They helped me find my purpose in a sea of darkness and pain.
And along—I was with Fritz, along with Mike Mansfield and Teddy Kennedy and a few others who all came to see me and said: "Just come 6 months. You can go home after that. We need you." We had 58 Democrats; they didn't need me for a damn thing. [Laughter] No, I'm serious. But I was so—such a rookie I thought, "Maybe they need me to organize." [Laughter] And they said, "Then you can leave."
And I used to show up every Tuesday at 3 o'clock in the Senate Chamber to get an assignment from Senator Mansfield. Many times, Fritz would walk me over. And I thought all freshmen got assignments. I didn't know that nobody gets an assignment in the Senate. [Laughter] It wasn't until about 5 months or 3 months in that I realized that was the case.
But they kept me engaged. They helped me get up when it was easy to give up.
My life changed again 5 years later. No man deserves one great love in his life, let alone two, but I met and married Jill Biden. I had to ask her five times. [Laughter] True. But being a spouse of a Senator who was relatively well known, because of the celebrity of how I got there and the accident, and inheriting two beautiful young boys wasn't easy.
Once again, Fritz and Joan were there spreading the light. Joan was one of the first people to reach out to Jill, and it meant the world to us. It meant the world.
You just heard from my friend, Jon Meacham, Fritz was a master legislator who shone a light on those who needed it most. The desire to lift up others stemmed from his youth, from his service as a corporal in the U.S. Army and those early days organizing for Hubert Humphrey in parts of Minnesota that Democrats didn't win.
Fritz learned early the power of bringing people together. And I know that Fritz—for Fritz, no moment was brighter than when he joined forces—because I was with him; I was just a bit player—with an African American Senator from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, and they passed the Fair Housing Act.
I was on the same side—the same side of the Chamber in the back where Fritz was. I remember the look on his face—literally remember the look on his face. Opened up neighborhoods diminished by segregation for so long. When the Act passed, Fritz spoke on the Senate floor. And he said that, quote, "The words 'justice' and 'fairness' will mean more to millions of our fellow Americans than they do—will never—meant more to our fellow Americans than they do today." That was Fritz spreading light, the light of our country, to families who had never truly known its warmth.
At every stage of our lives, at every inflection point, Fritz and Joan—I apologize, as we say in the Senate, for the, you know, point of personal privilege here—but they were there for Jill and me and my family—not on a political level, but on a personal level. It was true that my—first days in the Senate when I needed help very badly, and it was true in my last days in the Senate as well.
In 2008—and Fritz and I had become close friends, and I sought his counsel many times—I was asked to join the ticket with Barack Obama. I was, as I usually was, on Amtrak going home. [Laughter] I commuted every day. They later told me over 1,200,000 miles on Amtrak. They should name a station or something after me. [Laughter]
But all kidding aside, he called me after it was clear he was the de facto nominee. And he said he'd liked me to join him on the ticket, at least consider it; could he do a background check on me. "You know, we have to do that background check." And I said, "No thanks, Barack." I thought he was just dragging that bloody cloth through the Senate like President—Presidential nominees do to get everybody excited and involved.
And Barack told me, "No, no, no, there's only one other person I'm considering." I said, "Barack, I don't want to be Vice President." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because you're basically just standby equipment." [Laughter] I said, "What I want to do—I'm"—and by that time, I had chaired two major committees. I was fairly influential in the Senate. I said: "I can help you a lot more as a Senator. I'll do everything I can. I'll campaign throughout the country for you."
Barack asked me—he said: "Look, would you go home and talk it over with your family? Just talk it over." So I did. I called Jill from the train on my cell phone. And when I got home—I was about halfway home when I had gotten the call. And when I got home, I went in. And the first person I called was Fritz before the family gathered in the back porch. And I asked, I said, "Fritz, what should I do?" And he went into great detail. [Laughter] I'm serious. As a matter of fact, he sent me a long memorandum he prepared for President Carter when they were deciding how the relationship would work.
He told me, in essence, that the Vice Presidency holds no inherent power. None. Zero. The Vice President is merely—and it's true—a reflection of your relationship with the President of the United States.
About 7 years ago, I joined Fritz at a forum in his honor at George Washington University. Fritz recounted that his greatest strength wasn't his expertise in a particular policy area; it was the genuine personal relationship he built with President Jimmy Carter, a relationship built on real affection and trust. They sat down for lunch together every week. Fritz said, "Make sure you get a commitment from Barack: Once a week, you have lunch to discuss whatever is on either of your minds."
He was the first Vice President to have an office in the West Wing, just a few steps away from the Oval Office. That had never happened before. They were over in the Executive Office Building across the street.
That was the true strength of the Vice Presidency he said, a strength that Barack and I replicated in our time in office and what I'm—Kamala and I are doing today. And she sends her regards to the whole family. She called me before I got in the plane.
It was Fritz who lit the way. His core—at his core, Fritz embraced everybody with a belief that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity—everybody. Dignity. Not just the right to vote, dignity. He was loved by the American people because he reflected the goodness of the American people, especially the people of Minnesota.
You know, every Senator wears on his or her sleeve the State they serve. But the love Fritz had for the people of Minnesota ran deeper than that. He loved you all, and you loved him back—it was obvious—because Fritz reflected the very best qualities of this State: the warmth and optimism that you reflect.
At every turn, Fritz reflected the light of this Nation, who we are and what we can be. He called me when I had said in the Inauguration that we're the most unique nation in all of history. We're the only nation founded on an idea. Every other nation in the world is based on geography, ethnicity, religion, race. We're founded on an idea. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," that all men and women are created equal, "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," including the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And it goes on.
Fritz believed that in his gut. I watched him every day for over 35 years in the Senate and when he was Vice President. He united people, sharing the same light, the same hopes. Even when we disagree, he thought that was important.
I'll never forget, on a personal level, what it meant to have a friend like Fritz. Less than 4 years after losing Eleanor to brain cancer and just a year after losing Joan, Fritz was there to help me again when Jill and I lost our son Beau to brain cancer after a year in Iraq.
I'll never forget how Fritz reflected so much love and light into our family—again, at our darkest moments—nor will I forget coming here to Minneapolis 8 years ago to say goodbye to Joan.
Most of you remember that Fritz went to the Mayo Clinic for quadruple bypass the very next day. He had delayed the surgery so he could be with all of us to reflect her light. And he put off treating his own heart because, as all you know, his heart belonged to Joan.
As I've said many times—I say to the family, seeing your mom and dad together reminded me of that great line from Christopher Marlowe's poem: "Come live with me and be my love, and we shall all the pleasures prove." You can tell when a couple has been together a long time, still looks at each other with love, deep love.
It's been said that memory is the power to gather roses in winter. Well, Ted and William, your dad blessed you with an endless garden of those memories and, most of all, the memory of two extraordinary loves: a love of more than 58 years he spent together with your mom and a love of 51 years with your sister Eleanor. In his farewell letter, Fritz wrote that he was eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor, two unbreakable loves.
You know, Jill Biden wanted to do a garden at the Vice President's Residence—a picture of which shows on the screen outside here that I'm standing in front of the Residence—so that every family that ever had lived there, there was a garden with stones and engraving on each of the stones with the name of the couple and the children.
And I called Fritz to tell him about it; he came over to the house. And it was a summer day. And he wanted—he said, "Can we go in the house?" I said, "Of course." He wanted to walk up to the third floor. He walked up to the third floor and then, to the end; there are bedrooms in the third floor.
And he stopped in front of a door and opened it and just stared. And I knew he was thinking something deeply, and I went down the hallway. And a few minutes went by, and he came down. And he said: "That was Eleanor's room. I so miss her." Well, they're all together now, for all time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." There is no doubt that the institution of the Senate and the institution of the Vice President reflect the profound legacy of Fritz Mondale.
But it's not a lengthened shadow we see in those places, it's his light. And it's up to each of us now to reflect that light that Fritz was all about, to reflect Fritz's goodness and grace, the way he made people feel no matter who you were.
Just imagine what our Nation could achieve if we followed Fritz's example of honor, decency, integrity, literally just the service to the common good. There would be nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing beyond our reach.
I hope we all can be Fritz's mirror, continue to spread his light. Because you know he was one of the finest men you've ever known, one of the most decent people I ever dealt with, and one of the toughest, smartest men I've ever worked with. You were lucky to have had him. [Inaudible]—look at things, he was lucky to have had you.
God bless you, my dear friend. Among the greatest of all Americans. The highest compliment, my Grandfather Finnegan used to say, you can give a man or a woman—he was—the Irish of it is to say, "He's a good man."
Fritz Mondale was a good man.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:44 p.m. at the University of Minnesota. In his remarks, he referred to Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen, senior pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN; Rebecca Mondale, daughter-in-law, Chad Poling, son-in-law, and Cassandra and Danielle Miller, granddaughters, of Vice President Mondale; Jon Meacham, canon historian, Washington National Cathedral; and Vice President Kamala D. Harris.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks at a Memorial Service for Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in Minneapolis, Minnesota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/355666