Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

This is how I conclude the opening section of Chapter 1 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own (publication TBD):

I also learned that by 1920, Pennsylvania was the 2nd most common American state for the last name “Berger” (14%), behind only New York (23%),[i] which meant I had plenty of company for every lame “ham-Berger” joke I endured as a child. That said, one appeal of Perry Mason reruns for me was that Mason’s primary opponent, played by film noir stalwart William Talman, was District Attorney Hamilton Burger…get it?

Perry Mason, which aired from 1957 to 1966, makes multiple appearances in my book, both as a marker on my film noir “personal journey” and as a fondly-remembered part of my childhood:

My final memory of Robindale is a nasty upper respiratory ailment which kept me home multiple days in January 1979. I mostly watched my small black-and-white television in bed, at least when I was not making myself read the paperbacks—primarily In Search of… volumes—collected in a shoebox. I also listened to WIFI-92, hoping to hear one of my favorite songs at the time: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” and The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Mostly, though, I was waiting until 11:30—on weeknights—to watch Perry Mason on Channel 48, after which the station ended its broadcast day.[ii]

For some reason, my wife Nell and I did not watch the HBO Perry Mason prequel series, which debuted on June 21, 2020, when it originally aired. This past Saturday night, though, having just finished re-watching Sherlock with our younger daughter—who absolutely loved it—we queued up the first episode. We were immediately hooked—though we quickly decided its content was too mature even for our Riverdale– and Stranger-Things-obsessed daughter.

Nell and I were watching on the night of Monday, April 19, 2021 when I let out a squeal of delight when a character—a Yale-educated lawyer and aspiring district attorney—said his name was, you guessed it, “Hamilton Burger.”

A short while earlier, however, I was on the verge of tears.

Nell was scanning her iPhone, when she suddenly said, “Oh, Walter Mondale died. He was 93.”

**********

Late in 1982, I visited my best friend at his house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. I do not know why I walked through his parents’ bedroom—to use a bathroom, maybe?—but on top of a dresser in that room was a recent copy of Time magazine, or perhaps Newsweek. I was drawn to a story featured on the cover about the emerging race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, then shaping up to be a battle between two liberal icons: Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy and former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, as well as Ohio Senator John Glenn, who possibly had the right stuff. Arguably, Kennedy had severely damaged Mondale’s chances to be reelected vice president four years earlier by unsuccessfully running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

While I had followed the 1980 presidential campaign to some extent—jumping briefly on the bandwagon of Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown—I had not yet begun to focus on 1984. However, something about that article galvanized me toward Mondale. Perhaps I had never warmed to the idea of Ted Kennedy as president, making Mondale the obvious choice for a passionate young liberal. Perhaps it was that Mondale had recently been vice president, so it was his “turn.” Perhaps it was a vague memory of Mondale’s son Ted visiting Bala Cynwyd Middle School on April 18, 1980, during that year’s Pennsylvania presidential primary, to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket.[iii] As I note here, Barbara Bush, wife of the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had spoken to my fellow 8th graders and me the previous month.

Perhaps…I have no idea why.

At any rate, Kennedy announced in early December that he would not seek the nomination, after all. It is possible that this was the article I saw in Wynnewood that day.

At the time, our cable package had a kind of ticker-tape news channel. I began to watch—well, read—it regularly, waiting for the next Democrat to announce his candidacy. Joining Glenn and Mondale were former Florida Governor Reuben Askew, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Oh, and when I toured Yale University in late August 1983, there were signs advertising an address by a young Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, who had worked on McGovern’s campaign. As intriguing as some of these candidates were, though, I never wavered in my support for Mondale. In fact, in my role as co-News-Editor of the Harriton High School Free Forum, I wrote the “meet the candidates” article on Mondale (and on Glenn, actually.)

I also schlepped this around senior year…

…and taped this to the cover of a school notebook, cementing me as “the Mondale guy” at the centrist-Republican-leaning Harriton.

It is not necessary to review the nomination battle beyond this: while Mondale dominated the February 20 Iowa caucuses, it was Hart—not Glenn—who finished a strong second. Nine days later, I raced home from Harriton to watch CNN’s coverage of that day’s New Hampshire primary—and the same video clip featuring ice sculptures of the candidates—only to be stunned by Hart’s 39%-29% victory over Mondale, with Glenn well back at 12% and Jackson at 6%. After two contests, it was essentially a three-person race between Mondale, Hart and Jackson—who won or tied in contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

It was a seesaw campaign, though it is possible this moment in a March 11 debate ultimately gave Mondale the nomination. For context, the original “Where’s the Beef?” ad follows.

As the April 10 Pennsylvania presidential primary approached, the Philadelphia area was dotted with Mondale and Hart lawn signs, with quite a few Jackson signs in the city itself. Mondale won solidly 45.1% to 33.3%, with Jackson earning 16.0%. About two months later, on June 5, Mondale effectively clinched the nomination by winning primaries in New Jersey and West Virginia.

By this point, I had taken a white pull-down window shade, scrawled MONDALE in large block letters on it using—something or other—and suspended it from one of the brick walls on our small patio. Naturally, I followed the chaotic selection process to be Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, thrilling at the diversity of the choices, but concerned by the very public “audition” process. I was very excited when he chose New York member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman chosen for a major-party ticket.

If memory serves, I actually put on a coat and tie to watch the Democratic National Convention, which ran from July 16-19, 1984, in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. I remembered Democrat Mario Cuomo being elected governor of New York two years earlier but, like most of the nation, I was not prepared for how electrifying his keynote address on the opening night of the convention was.

While writing this essay, I re-watched Cuomo’s speech.

Do yourself a favor, watch it yourself.

It is that good…and that prescient.

I also re-watched Mondale’s acceptance speech, which—after a slow start—was much better than I remembered. The only thing I had previously recalled from it was Mondale’s discussion of the need to raise taxes in order to bring down the massive federal budget deficits President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies had created.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes. So will I.

“He won’t tell you. I just did.”

This statement was an enormous political risk because of the “tax and spend” Democrat stereotype. And it only endeared him to me more.

Otherwise, Mondale appears resolute, experienced and clear-eyed, frequently flashing a surprisingly warm smile for a man unfairly criticized for lacking charisma.

The primary purpose of the convention was to unify a Democratic Party badly split by the months-long battle between Mondale, Hart and Jackson, one about to face a unified and well-organized Republican Party in November. It is striking that Cuomo never mentions Mondale or Ferraro by name—or any Democrat other than New Mexico House Member Mo Udall, who had spoken earlier that evening, and five former presidents, including Carter who watches in approval with his wife Roslyn—only obliquely mentioning them only at the end of his speech.

Did it work?

**********

The raison d’etre of the character first introduced by Erle Stanley Gardner in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933 was to defend persons whose guilt appeared obvious to the state but who were genuinely innocent: “the friendless and unjustly accused.” It is no accident Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1940 to do in reality what Mason did in the fictional courtroom.

The HBO series provides an “origin story” for Mason, as well as for his indefatigable private secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake (brilliantly reimagined as an African-American Los Angeles police officer) and Burger. It takes some time for all four to appear in the same scene as tenuous allies, but the wait is worth it.

What I always loved about Perry Mason, besides the actual whodunit and the brilliant courtroom scenes, was that as much as Mason and Burger are rivals, in the end both want not just to win, but to make sure the correct killer is identified. As irritated as he clearly is by Mason’s tactics, Burger is quick to realize when he has been beaten and the actual guilty party identified, who is then usually taken away by Lieutenant Tragg.

They both seek true justice, not merely fleeting victory. They are respectful opponents, not bitter enemies.

**********

The selection of Ferraro gave the Mondale campaign a much-needed jolt, but soon Ferraro was facing a barrage of questions about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro. In August, she held a marathon press conference which temporarily stemmed the tide of negative press.

A few weeks later, I began my freshman year at Yale University, where I became active in the College Democrats and other political organizations. It was through the latter I saw Ferraro speak in New Haven on September 8,[iv] despite what I later wrote on this card.

On September 30, I turned 18, meaning I was eligible to vote for the first time in the November 6 election. One week later, I watched—likely with my then-girlfriend on a common room television set—as Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale. He appeared old, tired and very confused—and, once again, Mondale rallied in the polls. However, while Ferraro also did well against Vice President George H. W. Bush in their October 11 debate, Reagan rallied in the second and final presidential debate on October 21. In fact, the only line anyone remembers from either debate is a confident Reagan saying “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.”

Mondale laughs right along with the audience, even though he seems to know how devastating that moment is.

**********

Mondale was born in Ceylon, MN on January 5, 1928. An activist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, Mondale was elected state Attorney General in 1960. When Humphrey was sworn in as Vice President in January 1965, Mondale was appointed to fill his seat, serving until he himself became Vice President in January 1977.

On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis, MN while a white police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. This death—captured on video—inspired a summer of protests and calls for fundamental changes to our system of justice and policing. One day after Mondale—who had long since returned to his beloved Minnesota—died in Minneapolis, a jury in that city found Chauvin guilty on all three counts in the death of Floyd: manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. It is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a white police officer to be held accountable for the death of a civilian of color; this was a historic verdict.

In fact, just as I teared up when I heard the news of Mondale’s death, I felt a rush of emotion—relief mixed with jubilation—when I watched the verdict live on MSNBC. It is fitting it was announced while the nation mourned Mondale, a profoundly decent public servant who forcefully advocated for racial, gender and economic justice his entire career. It is also fitting Nell and I watched the final three of the eight Perry Mason episodes that same night, watching Mason complete the journey from bedraggled and cynical private investigator to indomitable fighter for justice.

**********

After casting my first-ever vote—and still one of my proudest—for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket on Tuesday, November 6, I had dinner with my then-girlfriend at a new restaurant called Audubon’s, a few blocks east of the main campus; the strike which closed down all of Yale’s dining halls for most of my first semester there was still in effect. We figured we would have plenty of time to settle into watch the returns by 8:30 pm or so, optimistic about Mondale’s chances to the very end.

But beginning around 7 pm, we watched in stunned disbelief on the television set in Audubon’s—or perhaps in windows as we hustled back to campus—as state after state after state was quickly called for Reagan. Before long the only question left was whether Mondale-Ferraro would win ANY state besides the District of Columbia. Minnesota did, finally, vote for its native son, but only by 3,761 votes. Nationally, Reagan-Bush beat Mondale-Ferraro 58.8-40.6%, winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. It was a humiliating and historic defeat.

Nell has since claimed responsibility for what happened on November 6—something about dumping beer cans she was drinking while under age in the trash bins behind Mondale’s house in Georgetown—but much larger forces were at play. Reagan had won election in 1980 by soundly defeating Carter, who himself had beaten Gerald Ford for reelection four years later. Ford only became president because he was vice president—having been appointed when Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973—when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Nixon had himself beaten a Democratic Party badly divided in 1968 over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and civil rights legislation. Johnson, finally, ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

That is five presidents in 20 years, after there had been only three presidents in the preceding 28 years. Voters, I think, desperately wanted continuity and stability in 1984, and with the economy seeming to recover strongly, they overwhelmingly awarded Reagan a second term.

Mondale returned to Minnesota until President William J. Clinton named him Ambassador to Japan in 1993. Nine years later, on October 25, 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, just 11 days before he was to face election to a third term. Mondale, now 74 years old, was hastily named to run in his stead, losing to Republican Norm Coleman by 2.2 percentage points—a bittersweet end to a long and distinguished career.

As always, though, Mondale graciously shrugged off the loss and went back to private life. Six years later, Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the first woman so named since Ferraro 24 years earlier. Eight years later, the Democratic presidential nominee was Hillary Clinton, the first woman so selected by a major party. Not of these three women became vice president or president, however.

It was only in November 2020 that a woman finally broke through: California Senator Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, was elected Vice President to serve with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Mondale, happily, lived long enough to see her victory…and it is very apt that Vice President Harris was one of the last people Mondale called before his death.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mondale. You served your nation with honor, compassion and dignity, and you will always be one of my biggest heroes.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=berger

[ii] e.g., “TV Today,” PI, January 16, 1979, pg. 17-D

[iii] Cusick, Frederick, “They can’t vote but can question,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 19, 1980, pg. 2-B

[iv] Lender, John, “Ferraro Raps Reagan in Stop at Festival,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 9, 1984, pg. A1

3 thoughts on “Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

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