Washington — Vice-President Walter (Fritz) Mondale is leaving office in less than a sanguine mood. Although he still subscribes to the liberalism, the rhetoric, and the "politics of happiness" of his mentor, the late Hubert H. Humphrey, Mr. Mondale's message as he prepares to leave office is a sober one for those who think as he does.
The realities -- the economic pinch and the need to give priority spending to the military -- have put a damper on liberalism in the United States.
"I remember in the '60s when Keynesianism was in high stride," said Mondale, chatting with a few reporters over breakfast at the vice-presidential mansion. "At that time we were able to cut tax rates, increase revenues, add jobs, fund new programs, and keep a stable dollar.
"That," he added with regret in his voice, "was a good time for a Democrat to be alive.
"We did a lot of good things. One of the reasons was that you could get our nation in a more compassionate frame of mind when you were sharing additional resources from growth. Nobody was losing anything. And thus you could say: 'How about feeding the hungry? How about educating those poor kids? How about having some decent housing for these families that are living in desperate conditions?'
"People would say, 'That's right. Let's do some of that.'"
The vice-president, flanked on his right by his wife, Joan, at the large dining room table in the big Victorian residence they will be leaving in a few weeks, paused, then added:
"But when you have a nation gripped with inflation, threatened by unemployment, with people who have worked their whole lives and are just hanging on by their fingernails, wondering how they are going to get their kids educated , pay for health costs, pay for mortgages, and so on. . . .
"You know, when persons are so desperate in their own lives, it is hard to get them to think in terms of the needs of others -- and understandably so."
More than anything else the Vice-President is preoccupied with concerns about the Soviet Union -- what the Soviets may be up to and how necessary US spending for arms makes cutbacks into social programs also necessary.
"I'm very worried about US-Soviet relations," he said. "I cannot understand -- it just baffles me -- why the Soviets these last few years have behaved as they have.
"Maybe we have made some mistakes with them. Why did they have to build up all these arms? Why did they have to go into Afghanistan? Why can't they relax just a little bit about Eastern Europe? . . . Why do they try every door to see if it is locked?"
Again Mondale pauses. As he parts with his Washington role, he is in a reflective mood, obviously dipping deeply into inner thoughts and views which he has kept sublimated during his vice-presidential years.
"I'd like to spend some time with the best thinkers," he said, "see if there is something we can do to US-Soviet policy to change that -- perhaps, slowly over the years, to see what we can do.
"Because just as inflation and low productivity and energy are at the core of domestic concern, so US-Soviet relations drives almost everything else.
"When we are scowling at each other, when we are arming each other, when we are playing these games of chess with the lives of others, that, too, embitters the American political dialogue. That threatens all of us, because you can't control armaments when this is going on.
"And no matter what our generation has as its various sets of priorities, nothing should be higher than to limit the chance that the bomb might go off.
"That's everything. And yet you cannot deny the fact that the last couple of years, particularly with Afghanistan, our chances of doing those things essential for survival have been dangerously undermined."
Mondale's thoughts gush out as though they had been stopped up for awhile:
"Also, when they [the Soviets] do what they do, it drives up our defense budget. I'm a domestic reformer, a progressive. But I'm not going to stand there and let the Russians run away from us.
"We've got to have a strong defense. There can be no question about it. The American people will permit no questions about it. And that's why we have had to move dramatically to build up the defense budget -- and will continue to do so.
"And all that [is] at the cost of everything else we need for justice in America and other serious responsibilities we have around the world."