Joan Mondale was a modest Midwesterner who left her mark on America
February 5, 2014 12:00 AM
Joan Mondale stumps for her husband Walter during his presidential campaign of 1984.
By David Shribman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Her husband mastered the art of politics, she mastered the politics of art. Her husband campaigned for the presidency, she campaigned for art in public places. She cared for the couple’s children at the beginning of their lives together, he cared for her at the end of hers.
Joan Adams Mondale, who died Monday at age 83, was an artist, an advocate and an ambassador for American culture. She was also the wife of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale — a pathfinding second lady of the United States who left a permanent mark on the American landscape.
The art along the Boston subway’s Red Line, the sculpture on the plazas of the palaces of American commerce, the grace notes of culture that are a part of federal projects across the country, the exhibits that are on the walls of American embassies around the globe — all bear the fingerprints of Mrs. Mondale, who was instrumental in making the arts part of government and private-sector projects.
Mrs. Mondale, like her husband a minister’s child, grew up in Wallingford, Pa., and, like her husband, was educated at Minnesota’s Macalester College. She was not a native Midwesterner but drank in the spirit of the region and then personified it.
She could speak fluently about the nature scenes of Charles Burchfield, the watercolor-and-crayon creations of Richard Diebenkorn, the sculpture of Kenneth Snelson and the paintings of Richard Anuszkiewicz — and could rhapsodize on the virtues of soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. A Beacon Hill matron never got over the fact that when Mrs. Mondale stayed in her guest room during a campaign swing through Boston, she insisted on making her bed before leaving the house.
“When the two were together they were like small-town Minnesotans who were no longer small-town,” says Dayton Duncan, deputy press secretary of the Mondale presidential campaign in 1984. “She had the modest Midwestern values without being corny. She had a sophisticated outlook but never gave the impression that she had left something behind and moved up.”
When the couple moved out of the vice president’s house after the Democratic ticket lost in 1980, Barbara Bush remembered yesterday, Mrs. Mondale welcomed the new vice-presidential family into the mansion with uncommon grace. It was the same grace Mrs. Mondale showed when a neighbor, Diana Walker, told her that the youngest Mondale, Eleanor, had been ice skating down the sidewalk of Lowell Street in Washington after a midwinter freeze.
Mrs. Mondale had sharp political instincts and nudged her husband to pick Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first woman on a national ticket. “She understood the meaning of breaking an important barrier,” says David Lee Lillehaug, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice who as a young man lived with the Mondales during that period.
The American republic was conceived by poets and artists but, alongside Jacqueline Kennedy, Mrs. Mondale was the modern American who most nearly combined arts and politics. In his first Blair House meeting with Jimmy Carter as the Georgian’s vice president, Mr. Mondale insisted on a role in the arts for Mrs. Mondale, who became known as Joan of Art. Mr. Mondale placed the notion in the memorandum he prepared for Mr. Carter on his vision of the modern vice presidency.
“Public art was not a concept well-understood, let alone supported, until Joan came along,” says Richard Moe, chief of staff in Mr. Mondale’s vice-presidential office. “Now it’s seen as an integral part of architecture.”
Mrs. Mondale’s arts offensive was not without controversy. Though she had worked at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, she lacked the formal graduate training of the arts establishment. Unlike others in her field, she did not let phrases like trompe l’oeil tumble effortlessly from her lips — though she minored in French at Macalester. She may have prided herself on her precision — her traveling companions this week uniformly recalled her iron discipline when it came to her diet — but she abhorred pretension.
“She meant so much to people in the arts because she not only celebrated them but understood them,” says Ann Stock, former assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “She was a potter and made the vice presidential house an art showcase.”
The exhibits Mrs. Mondale installed in the house often had a regional flavor — first New England and New York art, then art rooted in the Far West. It was an idea hatched over peanut-butter sandwiches in her kitchen and fueled by her personal knowledge that politicians had little taste for galleries but would accept an invitation to the vice president’s house.
“She was tireless on behalf of high art and public art,” says Anne Hawley, director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Indeed, one of the reasons Mrs. Mondale brought to her home a Snelson sculpture from the Whitney Museum of Art — a gangling assembly of four stainless-steel tubes and 10 steel wires — was because Mayor James Griffin of Buffalo refused to install a Snelson on a public plaza there. He said it was better suited to the bottom of Lake Erie. In time Mrs. Mondale won the battle of wills with Mr. Griffin, a former railway engineer who cultivated his populist image — but who eventually changed his mind.
Mrs. Mondale changed many minds, some on behalf of her husband, a onetime senator defeated by Ronald Reagan three decades ago. Throughout much of that campaign, she traveled on her own, winning friends — and pen pals. “She would get into the car after every event and start writing thank you notes,” says Heather Campion, who was the trip director for Mrs. Mondale and who next month becomes the chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.
Once Mrs. Mondale grew ill with Parkinson’s disease, her husband devoted himself to ministering to her at the end of her life with the indefatigability she once applied to his political life. The two attended Christmas music concerts this winter despite the northern-plains cold and the difficulty of maneuvering a wheelchair through snow-rutted Minnesota sidewalks. For months Mr. Mondale, still a Twin Cities luminary, turned down scores of invitations, saying simply, “I want to be home with Joan.”
“He felt it was something he owed her,” says Maxine Isaacs, who served as press secretary in the Mondale campaign. “He knew she took care of the home as he was making his way, and at the end he wanted to repay the debt.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).
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