Mondale’s speech is punctuated by the Rocky soundtrack. One of the more cheesy and unusual choices for a campaign anthem I can recall.
As for the speech…Mondale is one of the worst orators I’ve ever seen on a national stage. Look at the repetitious way he lists off all the qualities of the primary (“it was _____, but ____”) and then all the tedious criticisms he lists off for the Republicans (though “they are uniform but we are united” was admittedly a good line) and then he lists all the different groups and categories of Democrats in the audience on top of that. Notice a pattern here? And he just keeps going, listing off all his primary opponents (“when we speak of _______, the message is [insert primary opponent]”) Can you see how something like that might get boring to listen to? How it strangles any chance of excitement or momentum dead in its tracks before it’s even had a chance? Yeah. That’s Walter Mondale. I’m sure he must be a nice guy, but this man is the very antithesis of charisma.
There’s a lot of really weird moments, like when he says “I have something to say to the young people of America, and to their parents, and grandparents.” Why not just say you have something to say to all of America and get to the point? Better yet, why the lead in at all? If you’re running for President, if you’re giving a speech, I kind of assume you have something to say. Just say the thing, you don’t need to introduce the concept that there’s going to be a thing. And what’s worse is the payoff to this unnecessary buildup: “I’m Walter Mondale.” Yes, really. That just happened. Then he proceeds to bore us with his life story. I don’t care that you grew up poor or in small town Minnesota and your parents taught you the value of hard work. Any dunderhead can wax yarns about that kind of thing. I care about your policies. Please use this precious time to tell us about those.
There’s a lot of cheap, sappy lines in here, like “Mr Reagan calls it tokenism, but we call it…America.” It almost feels like a parody at times. He even outright says “Ronald Reagan beat the pants off us” in reference to 1980, which just begs the question why the party then proceeded to nominate the running mate of the very man who got whupped. And really, why would you, as the nominee and standard bearer of the party, even say that? That’s hardly the kind of sentiment which inspires much excitement or confidence. Then he’s talking about how he got his bags under his eyes “the old fashioned way—I earned them!” As if being a tired looking old guy is a plus. Mondale then proceeds to list some of the ways that the party completely abandoned sense and its own principles in the effort to win back Reagan supporters—the beginning of America’s ongoing race to the bottom. No defense spending cuts, no taxes on businesses, no ambitious public works projects. Mondale calls this “wiser and stronger,” but I call it unprincipled and cowardly. The whole speech is basically a second concession speech from 1984 and in fact a total capitulation to Ronald Reagan; it’s honestly kind of embarrassing to listen to. It’s like a jilted ex trying to list off all the ways it’ll be different this time if you just give him another chance.
The one good part of the speech is his chorus. It’s “you did not vote” and then he lists off another thing Reagan did as President which weakened America, and either wasn’t in his platform or was something he had explicitly promised not to do. This part is really effective, and appropriately assertive again. However, Mondale has yet to learn that if you repeat a choral line too much, it loses it’s impact. This isn’t his worst speech in that regard, but still it goes on just a bit longer than it ought to. We get a really cliched Lincoln quote at the end of this section which literally made me roll my eyes.
Mondale’s speech is completely dominated by Reagan in the same way that Hillary’s was completely dominated by Trump. He talks more about Reagan than himself or his own platform. Long gone are the days of JFK and McGovern laying out bold new plans for an idealistic future. Now it’s all half-measures, off-brand conservatism and shifting the overton window to the right. Where Mondale famously drops the ball is in admitting he will raise taxes, the magic words nobody wants to hear from a politician. Indeed, the line “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did,” is maybe the most infamous unforced error in the 20th Century, with only Bush Snr’s “Read My Lips: No New Taxes!” to contend for that distinction. Mondale tries to frame this moment as a shining example of his honesty. Instead, it’s proof he really didn’t understand why he lost in 1980, despite devoting so much of this speech claiming to have done so and ceding ground in that effort.
I will give credit where it’s due though: “that’s not leadership, that’s salesmanship” was another great line.
When Mondale launches into the segment about education, it honestly feels like he dropped his note cards and had to improvise or something. He starts using platitudes that are too lazy even for him “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” and then starts droning on about turning off the TV, kids doing their homework, and teachers…teaching. It’s so bad you have to hear it to believe it. It’s like something the school principle says on the first day of school to a bunch of bored teenagers as they make fart jokes and sex noises to mock him. I mean, what was Mondale honestly thinking? What were the Democrats thinking if this joker was their nominee? This was the convention that gave us Mario Cuomo’s brilliant “A Tale of Two Cities,” Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition,” Geraldine Ferraro’s acceptance speech and George McGovern delivering a sadly lost speech of his own. The first three are all in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 speeches and are iconic even to this day. McGovern’s may not have that recognition but he delivered the best acceptance speech ever just 12 years before, so I have no doubt he blew Mondale’s out of the water too. And with all that talent at this convention, this embarrassment is what their nominee, supposedly the best of them, has to offer?
The part around 28 minutes in when Mondale starts shouting at the top of his voice sounds so forced and insincere I actually had to shut the video off for a minute to give myself a break. “Why? Why?!” I felt secondhand embarrassment watching that. Then he launches into his own unfortunate rhetorical signature—a second, less effective chorus. “By the start of the next decade…” It’s not as insufferable as his multiple choruses as VP in 1980, but it’s close.
Mondale is similar to my revered political idol George McGovern in that both men only got one state in the general election. But their platforms, and speeches, could not be any more different. McGovern’s platform was a fearless call to sanity, what he honestly thought had to be done in order to make the country as good as it can be. Mondale’s platform is a middling, compromised plea for attention from a humiliated party that at this point was considered irrelevant in national politics. McGovern’s speech is a point by point guide how to write and deliver an effective address, Mondale’s is a point by point guide of what NOT to do. Never before have I seen a man openly sacrifice its founding ideals to placate a political rival like this. Mondale’s own lack of conviction or charisma only makes it that much worse. He talks about the bags under his eyes in this speech—it’s fitting, because he just sounds tired. Someone put the old boy out of his misery already; it’s time to retire.