When Walter Mondale passed away on April 19, the many obituaries reminded us all of his illustrious career as an attorney, Minnesota attorney general, a liberal Democratic Party senator from the same state, and then vice president to Jimmy Carter. But reading these articles also reminded me of our two years working together at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, from 1993-95, where I was a press officer and he was Ambassador Mondale. My job, as we used to say, was to make him look good.
That was the easy part, because it was hard to make this good-natured, unpretentious, bright and articulate gentleman look anything but good. He had no enemies that I knew of, even after many years in the cauldron of American national politics. I was one of three American officers who handled his media interviews and press conferences, and otherwise tended his public image in Japan.
As an American Foreign Service Officer, I took pride in my non-partisanship. Our motto was that politics stopped at the water’s edge, or that partisanship should play no role in our overseas mission. I would later also work for the late Senator Howard Baker, who became my ambassador in 2001. He was an equally distinguished Republican who had been chief of staff in the White House of Ronald Reagan. I considered myself honored and fortunate to have worked for these distinguished statesmen.
When Mondale assumed his position in Tokyo, he was 65 years old. I remember him early on asking me to schedule his press events in the morning rather than later in the day. This request made sense to me as I later hit my mid-60s, and learned how I too have more energy and presence of mind in the morning.
Obviously, Walter Mondale did not assume his Foreign Service role from the career track as I did, but as a “political” nominee of President Bill Clinton. He selected Mondale partly out of regard for the well-known wish of Japanese government officials for an omono taishi, or bigshot ambassador. A former U.S. vice president is about as big as you can wish for. These political ambassadors, though generally decried by the hard-working professionals of the U.S. Foreign Service, historically make up about one-third of the ambassadorial corps. I would agree that too many of them have been rewarded with the nominations in return for political favors received, and have been scandalously unprepared and clumsy in their job performances. But a culturally sensitive and skillful political ambassador, like Mondale, redeems the practice.
Every political ambassador is like a fish thrown into a new body of water. There is inevitably a steep learning curve. Unique to his background, Mondale may have imagined that the Embassy press office operated like the media operation in the Carter White House. But our skills, training, and methods were of a significantly different sort, understood as “public diplomacy” rather than “public affairs,” in that it involved foreign language learning and mastery of the foreign culture and media environment. Mondale was a quick study. He brought along three trusted personal aides, including one who had been living in Japan, and who was the son of an old friend. He was to be the ambassador’s media advisor. But in about a year, Mondale learned to rely on the career professionals, and this intermediary departed.
To be frank, I did not always enjoy the grinding work of the Embassy press office in the early 1990s. It was the period of bilateral trade friction with Japan. A constant stream of high-level Clinton administration officials visited Japan for trade negotiations, to “break in upon the Japanese market.” Our job was to brief these officials for their media interviews, and draft or massage “press guidance” and statements for public release. We frequently waited till late in the evening to organize press briefings following these negotiations. And this was often after an early start to the day to provide a “quick read” media summary for Mondale. But when your boss is congenial and professional, as in this case, morale remains high.
Apart from the day-to-day professional routines and stresses, there were also the personal interactions with Ambassador Mondale. These are what the obituaries bring to mind with fondness and nostalgia. I recall immediately his calm and cheerfulness. When he was presented with a problem, apparent dilemma, or difficult decision, I noted his imperturbable deliberation, and often thought he was the most “centered” person I had known. Perhaps because he had already experienced so many challenges in the White House, and had no personal craving to be on TV or interviewed in the press, he would rely on our professional recommendations whether to accept a request. When taping for a statement for the media, I don’t believe we ever did a reshoot because vanity never factored in the decision.
There was also his wit and sense of humor, which are always appreciated from colleagues at stressful moments. I particularly liked the delight he expressed in working while Washington was asleep, and then sleeping while Washington was working—which could be interpreted in several ways.
This all added up, for me, to keen and memorable life lessons. It was always quality time with Ambassador Mondale. That was not just during the press work, but in staff meetings and at other events. I also noticed the mutually respectful and affectionate demeanor of the ambassador and Jimmy Carter when they met in the Embassy media studio in July 1994, when the former president stopped in Tokyo on return from a trip to North Korea. This confirmed for me that my boss was genuine, that for him the interpersonal dimension was as important as the professional performance.
So it should not be surprising when I say that Mondale stayed in touch with me after he left the Embassy. He often expressed thanks for my annual yearend letters, though he knew they were written for all my friends and relatives. We met several times at his initiative, when he would reminisce about his Tokyo years. I don’t believe I was a special aide in Walter Mondale’s long career of public service, with his many mid-level staffers. Rather, his loyalty and modesty were simply a reflection of the man that he was.