In 1963, in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must provide lawyers for criminal defendants who couldn’t afford their own. One of the chief objections to this concept was a states’ rights argument, that the federal government had no authority to intrude on the question.
In answering that argument, Justice Hugo Black (no relation to your humble ink-stained wretch), writing for the unanimous court, noted that only Florida (the state that had denied Gideon a court-appointed attorney) and Alabama (in an amicus brief) argued that states should continue to have some discretion to deny indigent criminal defendants representation, while a brief filed on behalf of the attorneys general of 22 states urged the court to impose this requirement.
If the chief law enforcement officers of so many states favored the principle, perhaps it wasn’t so offensive to states’ rights, Black suggested. The campaign to assemble the coalition of attorneys general was organized by Walter Mondale, then the 35-year-old boy wonder attorney general of Minnesota.
Mr. Mondale will soon turn 79. It’s been my honor to know him for several years now, strictly as a reporter covering an elder statesman, although I’ve come to admire his unconditional decency. But I hadn’t known about his role in the landmark Gideon case until one morning last week when I attended the final meeting of a unique University of Minnesota class.
A small group of U of M undergraduates and grad students from various disciplines was given access to boxes and boxes of historical papers touching on myriad aspects of Mondale’s public life, — including some documents that have just been declassified and have not yet become publicly accessible — and access to hours of time with Mondale, and to several big movers and shakers who worked with and for Mondale over the years.
Each student wrote a paper about some Mondalian chapter or created an exhibit that is now on display at the Humphrey Museum in the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Last Tuesday, the students presented their papers, engaged in a brief exchange with Mondale on their topics, and took a few questions from Prof. Larry Jacobs, who coordinated the course.
Sitting for two hours in a cramped seminar room (named, by the way, for Harold Stassen), listening to bright young people describe and analyze their adventures in Mondaliana, I was struck by what a great opportunity this was for the students, by how lucky I was to have stumbled into a line of work that pays me a reasonable wage to have experiences that I probably should be paying to have, and mostly, what a remarkable thing it was that a preacher’s kid from Elmore, Minnesota had managed to lead a life that lead him to the scene of so many of the historical events of the nation and the world over several decades.
If you seldom think about such things, when the name Walter Mondale comes up, you may think of his loss, by 49 states to one, in the 1984 presidential election. Or maybe you think of the historic choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his gender-barrier-breaking running mate. Or perhaps you think of Mondale’s term as vice president under Jimmy Carter, a term that ended in disappointment and defeat.
But there are many other entry points into the Mondale biography, and the student papers — none of which focused on the 1984 campaign — provided a sampling. for example:
*The story of the Gideon case was a small chapter. I made a big deal of its above because it caught me by surprise, because it was so long ago, because the young law student who chose that as her paper topic had actually reviewed Mondale’s law school notes (which naturally made me wonder whether I could come up with any of my own college notes).
*According to one student’s research, Mondale played a bigger role in the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords of 1978 than is usually recognized. Mondale confirmed that student’s impression that Carter and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shared a deep personal bond, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin distrusted Carter’s commitment to Israel’s needs. Mondale, who was viewed as a solid friend of Israel, went to Egypt and Israel in advance of the Camp David talks and, the student researcher and Larry Jacobs agreed, Mondale was able to reassure Begin that he wasn’t walking into a trap.
*In 1968, Mondale co-chaired Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. One student detailed the experience, which came across as a series of disasters. Mondale smiled ruefully and reminisced about some of the bad breaks that put his mentor Humphrey into a deep political hole heading into the general election.
*In 1975, Mondale led a historic push to change the Senate rules on filibusters. As hard as it is in recent times to gain the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and force a vote, imagine what it was like before the Mondale effort to cut the votes necessary from two-thirds to three-fifths. After a student presented a paper on that chapter, Mondale acknowledged that his feelings had about the filibuster had waxed and waned through the years. And he acknowledged that, as occurred last year when the Senate almost melted down over the filibustering of judicial nominations, senators position on the filibuster tend to fluctuate wildly, depending on how many votes their party has in the body.
*In 1979, just after the U.S. established normal diplomatic relations with China, Mondale went to Beijing and negotiated trade and cultural exchange deals with Deng Xiaoping. As Mondale and the student who wrote about that chapter exchanged thoughts, another guest in the class, a Chinese-American scholar, piped up to say that she came to America in the aftermath of those talks and as a direct result of those deals that Mondale helped negotiate. She is now a U.S. citizen, teaching writing at Macalester College.
*Three students wrote about aspects Mondale’s role in the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Act, the 1978 law, signed by Carter that was also a follow-up to the abuses by domestic and foreign intelligence agencies that Mondale helped investigate in the 1970s as part of the Church Committee. It was clear during his exchanges with those students (one of whom was himself a former military intelligence officer) that Mondale had stayed abreast of developments of that law, that was headline news in recent years because of the Bush administration’s decision to disregard the warrants, required by the law, and the special court, created by the law, to issue the warrants if, er, warranted.
Mondale has devoted considerable time and energy over recent years to establishing the historical record of his public life, a process that included a series of autobiographical panels that I covered between 2000 and 2003. The course at the U, the assembling of the papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, and the effort to declassify some of them is the latest.
Researchers take note: the papers will become available to the public in January.