Warm, witty and wise

Walter Mondale and Dave Durenberger reminded me of how politics used to be

Walter Mondale, Gary Eichten, Dave Durenberger (left to right) speak at the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Walter Mondale, Gary Eichten, Dave Durenberger (left to right) speak at the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

When I was a reporter at The Minneapolis Star and WCCO, back in the days of newsprint and networks, I spent some time covering local government, politics and public policy. Surprising as it might seem today, I came away with a genuine fondness for — and an appreciation of — the politicians who were a part of it.

I was reminded why recently at a forum at the University of St. Thomas (and its Selim Center for Lifelong Learning), featuring Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Dave Durenberger. Their topic for the evening was When Politics was Not a Blood Sport.

The pair provided a first-hand look at the bipartisan friendships and partnerships they’ve experienced.

Different times

I could recall some examples from covering the Minneapolis City Council — when Republicans were still elected to the city’s legislative body. I remembered one of my first assignments as a rookie was to cover a debate between Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., and Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.

They went after each other — loud, lively and loquacious. When they left the hall, they were smiling and chatting, Dirksen with a cigarette in one hand and the other on Humphrey’s shoulder. They would later get together to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Still at it

At the recent St. Thomas forum, former senators Mondale and Durenberger seemed as affable toward, and comfortable with, each other as their Senate predecessors.

Both have had their share of titles and triumphs. They’ve also known times of trial and trouble; they managed not only to survive, but also to sustain their public service — Mondale with the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and Durenberger at the University of St. Thomas and its National Institute of Health Policy.

More than 400 people — mostly seniors judging by the overwhelmingly grey hair of the crowd — came to the forum moderated by Gary Eichten, the retired host of Minnesota Public Radio’s Midday program. From what I observed, the folks who came shared my opinion that the two political icons were warm, witty and wise.

Points taken

Included in their “wisdom”:

  • Minnesota has an unusually enlightened and active electorate and has served as an example of legislative compromise, particularly the Minnesota Miracle. That miracle occurred in the 1970s when a DFL Governor and a Republican Legislature got together to increase the state’s share of local public-school operating funds and reform the distribution of school aid.
  • If there’s to be a breakthrough in gridlock in the federal government, the U.S. Senate will most likely lead the way because senators, at least the enlightened ones, can reflect on the bigger picture, rather than parochial interests, since they’re immune from the pressure of running for re-election every two years.
  • The U.S. House has succumbed to partisan politics, especially since more and more representatives come from gerrymandered (safe) districts where they face no credible opposition. “It helps (to make good policy) to keep incumbents a little nervous,” Durenberger said. “My party has been controlled by the ‘No New Taxes’ pledge.”
  • Money, and the fast-rising cost of campaigns, is a corrupting influence on the political system. Elected officials must spend more time raising money than making good policy. “Money makes us part-time politicians,” Mondale said, “and full-time fundraisers.”
  • The mainstream media generally perform well and are not, as President Trump claims, misleading the American people. Nor are they “brutalizing” the President. “Mr. Trump has been brutalizing himself,” Mondale said. “The man is his own worst enemy,” Durenberger added.

When the forum ended, the two shook hands, the audience stood and clapped and I remembered why I still feel the need to address them by their honorific titles: Mr. Vice President and Senator.

Congress could use more like ‘em — idealists but not ideologues.