When Mondale finally ran for president in 1984, he first had to combat tired journalistic cliches about whether he had the “fire in his belly” to fight for the job. (Embarrassing confession: I used that expression more than once writing about the campaign for Newsweek.) During the primaries, Mondale ran as the candidate of the Democratic establishment while the political energy flowed to the underdog candidacy of Gary Hart and his “new ideas.” (Yes, these were the same ideas that Mondale successfully belittled in a debate by quoting a Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?”) New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s mother memorably encapsulated Mondale’s image problem by likening the former vice president to the blandest Italian food imaginable: polenta.
The mood at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, as I recall, reflected the forced gaiety of a party that knows it is doomed. Ronald Reagan and his “morning in America” was too popular—and the Democratic Party, after its landslide defeat in 1980, was too lost to know what to do about it. It is telling that Cuomo delivered the most memorable speech at the convention, instead of Mondale. In fact, there were moments when it seemed like a Draft Cuomo effort could erupt at any minute.
But even at the convention, few could imagine the magnitude of Mondale’s coming 49-state wipeout in which he barely carried Minnesota. His groundbreaking choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate ran into two weeks of controversy over the iffy real-estate dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. But more than anything, Mondale suffered from a campaign heavy on consultants and often lacking in authenticity. “Something about those last days was also liberating,” Mondale wrote, recalling the final week of the campaign. “I could throw away the strategy memos and the media coaching and go out in front of the people and speak from the heart.”
That, in essence, is the epitaph of the last old-fashioned liberal to be nominated for president. Only when landslide defeat was looming did Mondale feel free to “speak from the heart.” The man who envisioned universal daycare and battled the filibuster in the cause of civil rights—the heir to a rural liberal populism that once defined his party—spent the bulk of his lone campaign for the presidency pretending to be more centrist than he was in his heart.