Democrats' Dilemma

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What does Walter Mondale's career reveal about the dilemma of the modern Democtratic party and the crisis of postwar American liberalism? Steven M. Gillon 's answer is that Mondale's frustration as Jimmy Carter's vice president and his failure to unseat the immensely popular President Reagan in 1984 reveal the beleaguered state of a party torn apart by generational and ideological disputes.

The Democrats' Dilemma begins with Mondale's early career in Minnesota politics, from his...

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Overview

What does Walter Mondale's career reveal about the dilemma of the modern Democtratic party and the crisis of postwar American liberalism? Steven M. Gillon 's answer is that Mondale's frustration as Jimmy Carter's vice president and his failure to unseat the immensely popular President Reagan in 1984 reveal the beleaguered state of a party torn apart by generational and ideological disputes.

The Democrats' Dilemma begins with Mondale's early career in Minnesota politics, from his involvement with Hubert Humphrey to his election to the United States Senate in 1964. Like many liberals of his generation, Mondale traveled to Washington hopeful that government power could correct social wrongs. By 1968, urban unrest, a potent white backlash, and America's involvement in the Vietnam war dimmed much of his optimisim. In the years after 1972, as senator, as vice president, and as presidential candidate, Mondale self-conciously attempted to fill the void after the death of Robert Kennedy. Mondale attempted to create a new Democratic party by finding common ground between the party's competeing factions. Gillon contends that Mondale's failure to create that consensus underscored the deep divisions within the Democratic Party.

Using previously classified documents, unpublished private papers, and dozens of interviews -including extensive conversations with Mondale himself- Gillon paints a vivid portrait of the innerworkings of the Carter administration. The Democrats' Dilemma captures Mondale's frustration as he attempted to mediate between the demands of liberals intent upon increased spending for social programs and the fiscal conservatism of a president unskilled in the art of congressional diplomacy. Gillon discloses the secret revelation that Mondale nearly resigned as vice president. Gillon also chronicles Mondale's sometimes stormy relationships with Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, and Geraldine Ferraro.

Eminently readable and a means of access to a major twentieth-century political figure, The Democrats' Dilemma is a fascinating look at the travail of American liberalism.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Herbert Mitgang
What recommends this well-researched book is . . . that it emerges as a study of the American political scene and electorate in the last quarter-century.
New York Times
Thomas F. Eagleton
The era should be labelled: Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Walter Mondale, A Half Century of Enlightened Thought. Steve Gillon makes a vital analysis of Walter Mondale's pivotal role in this historic political saga.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Walter Mondale, Minnesota's attorney general at the age of 32, transformed a ceremonial office into a center for activist government. In another epoch, suggests Yale historian Gillon in this brisk, hard-hitting political biography, the ambitious senator who helped shape national policy on education, welfare, civil rights and child care would have been a sure bet to win the presidency. Yet, in Gillon's appraisal, Mondale failed to develop a political strategy for reaching middle-class voters, and Reagan's gospel of individualism had far greater appeal to the electorate than the philosophy of shared responsibilities that guided Mondale's disastrous presidential bid in 1984. Gillon discloses that Mondale, frustrated as Carter's vice president, flirted with the idea of resigning in 1979. He credits Mondale as the major force in building a consensus among warring factions of the Democratic Party, but faults his increasingly irrelevant political vision. Photos. (Aug.)
Booknews
Using previously classified documents, unpublished private papers, dozens of interviews, and extensive conversations with Mondale, Gillon (history, Yale U.) examines Mondale's entire political career, culminating in his 1980 presidential defeat, when he tried and failed to create a new Democratic majority by finding common ground between the party's competing factions. Accessible to a wide audience and essential to anyone who seeks to understand the travail of American liberalism. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231076302
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/1992
  • Series: Contemporary American History Series
  • Pages: 524
  • Product dimensions: 1.31 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven M. Gillon is author of Politics and Vision: The ADA and American Liberalism, 1947-85.

Columbia University Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2005

    The Mysterious Walter Mondale

    The Democrats' Dilemma is a very readable, little-known book by respected historian Steven Gillon about Walter Mondale and the Democratic party from Truman to Clinton. Although it starts off slowly, with the obligatory background information and 'early years' discourse, the reader soon gets to know a very human Walter Mondale--a man consumed, in thought, word, and deed--by political motivation. Gillon's Mondale is a completely virtuous fellow possessing less depth than one might expect. Gillon offers a thoughtful political analysis of the post-Watergate era. We learn--from Mondale's perspective--what made Jimmy Carter tick, both personally and within his White House. Discussion of the 1976 election and Carter's foreign policy are the most enlightening parts of the book, second only to Mondale's tormented time during the 'Crisis of Confidence' speech and Cabinet purge. However, there is too little discussion of Mondale's challengers for the 1984 Democratic nomination (except Gary Hart) and how they influenced his positions, and him as a candidate. Gillon completely overlooks the candidacy of George McGovern and how Mondale both differed and was influenced by McGovern, especially on foreign policy. Some attention should have been paid to the McGovern vs. Mondale dialogue during the Atlanta debate. There is no mention that the Mondale-Ferraro 'new realism' theme had been McGovern's 1984 primary theme. Hart's position on the military is not accurately stated. The man that emerges is less than courageous. Let's just say that Mondale was a less than daring statesman. The final chapter--on the liberal legacy-- should be a 'must-read' for any serious student of the Democratic party. Overall, it is a really good book.

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