Rooting for Fritz
Jude Wanniski
November 5, 2002


Memo To: Walter “Fritz” Mondale
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: I’d Vote for You

You were just great yesterday in your debate with Norm Coleman, who has worked so hard to get the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota, thinking he would be running against Senator Wellstone. He is an earnest young man, Fritz, but you did clean his clock, without breaking into a sweat. You know I’d always thought you belonged in the Senate, and that you wasted your time as Vice President to Jimmy Carter. Of course I was happy to see that even while you were crushed by the Reagan landslide in 1984, Minnesota at least still backed you, the only state you did win of the 50. The people of Minnesota were joining the rest of the American people in sending you that message. You did have the nasty partisan assignment in ‘84 of promising to raise taxes to balance the budget and it was the wrong policy and the wrong time.

Do you remember the last time we saw each other? It was a week or two after the Reagan Inaugural in 1981 and you were having lunch with a group of Japanese businessmen at a table for eight at the Four Seasons, in D.C. I came up behind you and stuck my notebook in front of you on the table and drew a few quick lines: “This,” I said, “is a Laffer Curve.” Of course you could have stuck me with your steak knife, but instead grinned, grabbed my elbow to give me a little shove, and said “Geddoutahere!!”

It’s hard to realize it has been more than 21 years since that funny slice of life. You do remember, I’m sure, how close we were in your early Senate years. That was back when I was still a liberal Democrat and you were a most ardent champion of civil rights legislation. Indeed, I don’t think there was anything we disagreed about back in those palmy days. Heck, I even believed in higher taxes. Of course, my salary at the old National Observer was so low in 1967 that with deductions I did not have much taxable income. We were still on the gold standard, Fritz, and there was no “bracket creep” up the Laffer Curve. If you win against Coleman, which I of course hope you do, I’ll talk to you about getting back to gold, to straighten out the nation’s finances. Good luck.

P.S. I see Coleman said in his debate that we should go to war with Iraq without the United Nations behind us, to show our strength. To which you replied, our strength comes from having the world behind us, not against us. In that moment, you really did seem to be a wise man and I guess you are. The Senate can sure use a few.

* * * * *

August 28, 1967

In Washington
Fanning Civil-Rights Hopes

Ask Sen. Sam Ervin, whose judiciary subcommittee holds the omnibus civil-rights bill, what chance the open-housing provision has in this congress, and he grins. Coming from the North Carolina Democrat, the big grin is answer enough. But going away, he calls back over his shoulder: “It doesn’t matter if they get it out of committee. They'll never get votes to break cloture.”

Supporters of open-housing legislation are grinning too -- and bearing it, because they figure Mr. Ervin is absolutely right. “I’m not even dreaming about the bill passing in this congress,” says one liberal. “I think it’s a triumph that we got hearings on it.”

That’s true enough. When the 90th Congress opened in January, the outlook for open housing was so bleak that there were predictions from all quarters that the measure would be bottled up in Senate and House committees and never get to the hearing stage.

The House last year had passed an amended version, watered down somewhat. But in the Senate, Minority Leader Everett Dirksen had led a filibuster that had kept it from coming to a vote, arguing that it was unconstitutional. House supporters of the measure were furious, saying they were forced to stick their necks out while the Senate stayed off the spot; they promised that this wasn’t going to happen again. Rep. Emanuel Celler, the Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, noted that many of the Democrats who marched down the aisle last year to be counted for open housing were subsequently defeated in the November elections. This time around, he said, the Senate would have to act first.

Although discouraged, a handful of Senate liberals decided to push ahead anyway and go through the motions, hoping that something would happen during the session to improve the bill’s chances. To bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is dominated by Southern Democrats, the open housing section was submitted separately by Sen. Walter F. Mondale, Minnesota Democrat, for consideration by the Banking and Currency Committee, which has a subcommittee on housing and urban affairs. “I got the assignment,” says the young, energetic Mr. Mondale, pulling on a long cigar, “because nobody else wanted it.”

Mr. Mondale, though, has not handled the assignment as if it were fruitless exercise. He wheedled Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama, chairman of Banking and Currency, into permitting hearings. “Senator Sparkman,” says Mr. Mondale “ is a gentleman.” And for three days last week, hearings were conducted, with possibly one more day to come.

Mr. Mondale says he is not optimistic, but he is; he’s unable to contain his enthusiasm as he marches around his office. For one thing, he calculated that he has 8 votes on the 15-member committee, and that Mr. Sparkman will continue to be a gentleman and allow it to come to a vote, although he is adamantly opposed to open housing.

Even is the bill is reported out, though, there doesn’t appear to be any chance of breaking a Southern filibuster joined once again by Mr. Dirksen. There’s only one possibility, and it became clear to Mr. Mondale last week. “We have more support now from young Republican senators than we’ve ever had in the past. Percy is for it.”

Sen. Charles Percy, Illinois Republican, is indeed for the principle of open housing, and if Mr. Percy is for Mr. Mondale’s bill in a big way, this suggests all kinds of possibilities. He is, after all, a live Presidential prospect. If Mr. Percy can build a fire under Sen. Thruston Morton, the Kentucky Republican who has been practically running the Percy-for-President campaign out of his own office, open housing will immediately revive as a live issue. For Mr. Morton, a leader of the GOP moderates, will begin searching for a compromise that will pacify Senator Dirksen. “Dirksen, of course, is the key to breaking a filibuster,” says one Percy strategist. “We have to come up with the strongest possible bill that Dirksen will buy.”

Realistically, Mr. Mondale recognizes that his open-housing bill is barely gasping, but it often doesn’t take much artificial respiration to revive an issue. President Johnson, who has done little to press for the measure in Congress, perhaps would do so if a chance of winning developed.

But the real key to breaking a filibuster is public opinion, and Congress currently believes that the public has reacted adversely to passage of any major civil-rights measures because of Newark and Detroit. Mr. Mondale takes some small comfort in any evidence to the contrary. In Montgomery Court, Maryland, where a strong open-housing ordinance was approved shortly after the Newark riots, he notes, local polls showed white home-owner opposition to open housing dropping from 60 to 45 per cent.

At this point small encouragements are all that are needed to keep Mr. Mondale exuberant and assiduous. As long as the bill remains alive, there’s a chance he can turn off Mr. Ervin’s smile.

--Jude Wanniski