An enduring lesson from Walter Mondale

By Richard Lee

Walter Mondale, who passed away Monday at the age of 93, will be remembered as a U.S. senator, a vice president and a presidential candidate. I’ll remember him for another reason.

Mondale is the subject of a story that’s been a part of several of the classes I’ve taught over the years.

Chris Matthews’ 1999 book Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game describes the strategy Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign employed to successfully spin the results of the Super Tuesday primary. With the help of a clever campaign manager, Mondale emerged as the winner in news reports, even though he lost seven of the nine Super Tuesday contests.

Here is what happened, as described by Mathews in his book:

Mondale, who entered the 1984 primary as the Democratic frontrunner, was rapidly losing ground to U.S. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. A poor showing on Super Tuesday would be devastating.

So Mondale’s campaign manager, Robert Beckel, made the race about one state – Georgia. Beckel spent hours on the phone with reporters delivering a singular message: If Mondale loses Georgia, the race is over. If he wins, the nomination is his.

Then he went to work on the optics. Beckel turned to the phone again and told Mondale supporters to come to the Capitol Hilton on primary night. He used a partition to cut down the size of the room and make the crowd look larger than it actually was. When news of Mondale’s victory in Georgia broke, network television cameras captured images of an overflow crowd celebrating the victory.

The following morning, a triumphant Mondale appeared on the Today show and accepted congratulations from host Bryant Gumbel.

“Mondale lost seven lost seven contests out of nine. But that was just the arithmetic,” Matthews observed in his book.

This episode from the 1984 Democratic primary helps when I teach strategy and messaging in public relations courses. It helps journalism students learn how to recognize when someone is trying to spin a story. And in seminar courses, it provides an illustration of the relationship between media and democracy.

Not a bad way to remember a man who spent his life in public service. RIP, Mr. Vice President.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors.



Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Politics, richleeonline

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