Wednesday 21 April 2021
Settling in to my seat on a chartered TWA Boeing 707, I realised that Walter Mondale, who died on Monday aged 93, was no ordinary politician and much more fun than the dull persona attributed to him by the (for the most part dour itself) US press.
The plane was decked out in all-first class configuration for the 80 or so on board, about a quarter of them the Washington-based travelling press.
Down the aisle came the vice-president, wearing a TWA steward’s jacket, dishing out the pre-take-off canapés and champagne, stopping to chat with everyone, checking the names and affiliation with journalists he had only come across briefly (myself among them) and equally dishing out quips and wisecracks - with the real stewards and stewardesses watching on in gales of laughter.
It was the spring of 1977, just a few weeks into Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency, in which he and Mondale, known as Fritz, had vowed that the “veep” would have a much more meaningful role than that of previous holders of the office.
We were setting off on a tour of Europe that would take in Portugal, Spain, Austria and Yugoslavia, the main focus of which was a meeting in Vienna with South African prime minister John Vorster to spearhead a new initiative to end apartheid in the white-ruled nation.
Like many of the Carter administration’s ideas, it was earnest and well-meaning, but unrealistic - even naïve - and lacking realpolitik.
On the first day of the talks, “Jackboot John” Vorster, the apartheid enforcer who had crushed South Africa’s fledgling Communist Party, gave Mondale and his foreign affairs advisors - many of whom returned to office in Bill Clinton’s first term - a long, slow lecture on the founding of the nation, beginning with the three little ships bearing Afrikaner pioneers that landed on a vast, deserted land in 1652.
On the second day, Mondale put the US demands, notably an insistence on one man one vote - something at the time that would not have been supported even in South Africa itself, where it was widely feared this would empower the militant Zulus, the biggest ethnic grouping.
It triggered an immediate walk-out by the South African leader and an abrupt end to the meeting.
There was a final stop, where Marshal Josip Broz Tito hosted a jolly garden party in the grounds of his mansion on the slopes outside Belgrade, although none of was sure what the US would get out of rubbing shoulders with the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
It was a downcast American delegation that boarded the plane for the flight back to Andrews Airforce Base - but that did not put Mondale off saying farewell to each of us as we left (and the TWA crew gave each of us a bottle of champagne). ■