From the moment more than a year ago when Walter Mondale announced his Presidential candidacy, he and his wife Joan have been off and running—separately. “We campaign independently, we always have,” says Joan, 53. “Speaking has never been a problem for me, and I want to help Fritz any way I can.” For Joan, that commitment has meant cold feet in Iowa, baked beans and brown bread in New Hampshire and weeks of seeing little other husband and less of their three children, Teddy, 26, Eleanor, 24, and William, 22. Back home in Washington, D.C. on a weekend break, Joan talked to Garry Clifford about the role of a candidate’s wife.
When Mo Udall was running for the Presidential nomination in 1976, he approached a woman in New Hampshire and asked, “Madam, can you support me for President?” And she said, “Oh, no, I’ve only met you three times.” I kept thinking of that story when I started campaigning last year.
Since January 1983 I’ve traveled more than 100,000 miles, visited 34 states and given more speeches than I can remember. I’ve been to 28 towns in Iowa and 34 in New Hampshire on my husband’s behalf, speaking before groups of 15 to 500 at community meetings, coffee parties, churches, you name it. I’m not sure I have helped change any minds, but often, after I’ve spoken, people will come up and say that they intend to vote for Fritz. I suppose that’s as close as you can get to an outright endorsement.
It’s easy for me to campign for Fritz. We have always agreed on the issues, and when we married 28 years ago in St. Paul, Minn., I knew he wanted a political life. I study the issues and frequently read his briefing papers. These days we manage to see each other for dinner about once a week. I miss my husband and he misses me too; that’s one of the hardships. But we make good use of the telephone.
I’m out on the trail about five days out of seven and squeeze my home life in Washington into two days. Coming home is not relaxation and sitting around reading a book. I take my husband’s shirts to the laundry three blocks away, get my hair done, do a little pottery (I’m making sets of dinner-ware for the kids), do the rest of the laundry and answer the mail.
Organization is the key. I’m pretty good now, but I remember when our daughter, Eleanor, was a baby in 1960. On the day Fritz was appointed Minnesota’s attorney general, our phone rang incessantly. Friends kept calling while I was trying to change poor Eleanor. I got flustered, and she rolled off the table, fell to the floor and hit her head. Dumb me. She was screaming, and I was trying to call the doctor, and the calls kept coming in. The day was a disaster, but that’s what happens when you are new to it all. Now I know to take the phone off the hook.
Since then I’ve learned a lot—including what happens when you’re out of the public eye. In 1981, when Fritz left the office of Vice-President, all of a sudden nobody recognized me. It wasn’t a total shock; I kind of expected it. When Fritz was nominated in 1976, I asked Muriel Humphrey if she would sit in the box with me and listen to his speech. She agreed, and shortly after that a national newscaster came on television and said, “There’s Walter Mondale’s wife sitting with an unidentified gray-haired woman!” I knew those things would happen.
After we lost the 1980 election, we moved from the Vice-President’s residence back to our home in Washington, which we’d rented for the previous four years. I spent most of the next 12 months with the carpenter, the plumber and the painter, making our house beautiful. With our kids away at college, the house was really empty. I’d grown used to the staff and Secret Service men. They’d become like family, but now they were gone. I’d much rather have our house full of giggles and noise and fingerprints than totally empty and blank as it was in 1981. It was dreadful. Fritz took over the cooking for the first year while I helped the workmen. I stepped out of public life. I didn’t have my hair done, didn’t put on makeup, and weeks went by when I lived in my pottery clothes.
By September 1981 I was ready to step back into politics. The Democratic Women of Erie, Pa. invited me to receive their Woman of the Year award. I was thrilled to be remembered. They met me at the airport and I was having such a good time that I walked off without my bags. Why should I remember my bags? For four years someone else had always taken care of that for me.
From then on till the mid-term elections I went out often, speaking as Joan of Art to groups I’d never have had time for while Fritz was in office. Then, in 1982, Fritz started a political action committee, and we campaigned all over the country for Democrats running for the House, Senate and state houses. I’d go off clutching my schedule, very grown-up. No staff. No agents. Boy, was I independent. I was traveling three days a week. I thought that was a lot. Little did I know what this campaign would be like.
Fritz officially announced he was going to run for President on Feb. 21, 1983 from the chamber of the House of Representatives in St. Paul, Minn. Our three children were with us, but that hasn’t been the case much since. Teddy graduated from the University of Minnesota in August and has campaigned for his father in Iowa and elsewhere since Labor Day. William, who has taken a leave of absence from Brown, where he is a senior, is spending most of his time in New Hampshire, with trips to the Southwest and Puerto Rico. William is the Mondale family’s secret weapon. He speaks Spanish, and many states have Spanish-speaking communities. Eleanor, an aspiring actress, campaigns in California on the weekends. We are like ships that pass in the night. Teddy called and asked me to bring some of his corduroys and casual clothes to Iowa on one of my campaign swings. I was in the state four days and never caught up with him, so I carried the clothes back to Washington and gave them to Fritz, who eventually found him.
After a year of hotel hopping, I’ve become reacquainted with the logistics of campaigning. The first rule is: Travel light. On the road, the biggest luxury you can hope for is to spend two nights in the same hotel. Second, try to eat something in the morning—a boiled egg, juice, coffee. There is no time to eat while I’m giving a speech or meeting people, and I often get hungry just watching other people consume donuts and coffee. Lastly, in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, wear warm, solid boots. I’d have frozen without mine. And when you’re standing in an outdoor receiving line and your feet get cold, stand on your heels and curl your toes up and down. That’s what Queen Elizabeth does, and I can vouch that it works.
Politically, I’ve found that people ask similar questions all over the country and in all forums. They ask what my husband is going to do to reduce the deficit, where he stands on Social Security cuts, what he would do in El Salvador and in Beirut. They ask what I’d do as First Lady, if it happened, I would continue to work for funding of the arts, and also get involved finding how the federal government can help families. As to whether I’d enjoy being First Lady, I look at it like having children: You’re never prepared for what actually happens, but the new responsibilities come in stages, and you grow to enjoy them.