When the couple moved out of the vice president’s house after the Democratic ticket lost in 1980, Barbara Bush remembered yesterday, Mondale welcomed the new vice presidential family into the mansion with uncommon grace. It was the same grace Mondale showed when a neighbor, Diana Walker, told her that her daughter, Eleanor, had been ice skating down the sidewalk of Lowell Street in Washington after a midwinter freeze.
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, 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, Walter Mondale insisted on a role in the arts for Joan Mondale, who became known as Joan of Art. Walter Mondale placed the notion in the memorandum he prepared for 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 Mondale’s vice presidential office. “Now it’s seen as an integral part of architecture.”
Joan 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.