Susan Estrich: Behind a great man

Summary: Walter F. Mondale, whom we lost on Tuesday, was one of the most decent, honorable and caring men I have ever known, not to mention sat behind and eavesdropped on for four months.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
Tribune graphic

I spent the 1984 presidential campaign in the seat behind former Vice President Walter Mondale. From nomination to landslide defeat, I was there, right behind him, giving weather reports to the rest of the plane.

Winning campaigns are great. You show up and you're a genius. Everybody is flying high. Sure, there is always backbiting, but victory has a thousand fathers and mothers — plenty of room.
Close campaigns are exciting. Everything you do matters. Everybody is operating at their max Q. You take a breath, knowing that you will remember these days. Believers pray — a lot.
Losing campaigns are sheer and unmitigated misery, punctuated only by eating too much.
In my political life, no candidate has loomed larger than President Ronald Reagan in 1984, meaning that no campaign has been more challenging — that is a better word —- than Mondale's effort to unseat Reagan.
A lesser man might have screamed in frustration, screamed at his wife, screamed at his pollster, screamed at the flight attendant, even screamed at the unseen ear behind the curtain (me).
He did none of the above.
This is what a day in the life of a presidential campaign is like, particularly if you are the challenger and you are behind.
You're out the door at about 6:00 a.m., wherever you are, to hit a factory gate with the candidate. With the staff and press guzzling coffee, the candidate works the line and then hops up on a stage. The press corps sets up. Workers gather around. And for the first of perhaps five times that day, the candidate gives some version — long, medium or short — of the same stump speech he gives every day, with the exception of a new topper for the fine folks of wherever you are, and their mayor, and their football team, and whoever else wants to be out there at the crack of dawn, and the day's new soundbite(s) — a couple of paragraphs written the night before based on whatever happened that day, or what the other guy said, or anything to break into the news cycle substantively, rather than with another story about how few folks showed up on the line that morning, which must be yet another sign of a campaign in disarray.
When you're doing well, an occasional slip-up is written off as a "rarity" in a well-oiled machine. When you're doing poorly, it's yet another slip, as if the accuracy of an advance person's timing were a measure of the campaign prospects. When you have heard the same speech over and over, anything will pass for news.
And that is what happens, all day long, interrupted by plane trips and vans to and from airports.
The candidate has to bound off the plane, greet the locals who are riding with him to the rally and be "on" for every single second, which Mondale did until he settled back in that seat in front of me.
You can tell a lot about a person the way he behaves in that moment, and the minutes afterward, when it would be easy for frustration to boil over.
Walter F. Mondale, whom we lost on Tuesday, was one of the most decent, honorable and caring men I have ever known, not to mention sat behind and eavesdropped on for four months.
It was an honor to work for him. He passionately believed in the possibility of government making a difference in the lives of those who needed a helping hand. He passionately believed in the mission of the civil rights movement. At my insistence, he even added Title IX to every speech he gave in the fall of 1984, after the Olympics, and delighted in the cheers for the American women.
May he rest in peace, his life an example to all of us of what politics can be.

Susan Estrich can be reached at

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