Fritz rides again

WALTER Mondale, the man who lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan, is back on the circuit, feeling comfortable about himself, and being candid about the shortcomings of his campaign. He has been out of the limelight thinking things through, and one of his decisions has been that he will not run for public office again. He has joined a Washington law firm, he is traveling, and will do some writing and speechmaking, but he is enjoying the freedom of not being a candidate under pressure.

As a liberated man, he has been talking to journalists about what went awry with his campaign, and he is being engagingly frank about it all.

Threaded through his retrospection is his belief that he did not perform well on television, that Ronald Reagan is a master of that medium, and that this largely did the Democratic campaign in.

There is something refreshing about a candidate who has been through the agony of a losing presidential campaign just coming right out and confessing he really was not very good at mastering television's technique. Mr. Mondale deserves credit for his honest self-appraisal. Yet while anyone must agree that television technique is an important part of the campaign, it is not the whole story and in Mondale's case may not even have been the critical factor.

Would, for example, Gary Hart have fared any better against Reagan? Would Ted Kennedy? Both are compelling stars on the television screen.

The fact is that Mondale was running against a President enjoying immense personal popularity, surfing to victory on an upbeat economy, with no major foreign policy crises threatening.

In the face of all this, Mondale called in mid-campaign for a tax increase. A lot of political pundits think that was a monumental error. Mondale himself does not agree. He says he knew what he was doing, and that it put the Reagan camp on the defensive.

The fact of the matter, however, is that whether Mondale was right or wrong on taxes, and whether he was convincing or not on television, he came across as the candidate telling Americans what was wrong with their country, while Reagan came across as the man telling what was right with America. Most voters clearly preferred the latter.

Mondale himself comes close to ruefully admitting this when he says: ``I think if you look at the campaign in retrospect, I looked like a person who was always talking about problems, about tough steps that were needed to solve problems. While my opponent was handing out rose petals, I was handing out coal.''

He is warm about Geraldine Ferraro, cool about the Rev. Jesse Jackson, abashed about the furor over Bert Lance's brief sortie into the national chairmanship of the Democratic Party, unrepentant about his early endorsements from labor unions.

There is no masking the disappointment he felt about his defeat. He particularly regrets losing the young. He feels he was right on the issues. He thinks he could have been a good president. He is disturbed that the Reagan administration feels it has a mandate to dismantle some of the social programs Mondale feels particularly strongly about.

Was it the program, or the man, that caused the Democratic Party such massive defeat? Senator Kennedy apparently thinks it was the program, for he is already inching toward a more pragmatic and centrist position. Others think it was Mondale the man, lacking the charisma on camera to outpoint Reagan.

Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who brought the Democrats to a cheering, stamping ovation at their national convention, and who is not a totally disinterested observer of presidential campaign strategies, came close recently to suggesting that neither program nor candidate were at fault, but that Ronald Reagan was simply unbeatable this time around.

Whether anything Mondale might have done could have altered the outcome is debatable. But as he changes careers and sets out on a new way of life, Fritz Mondale is coming through as a man of dignity and decency, expressing a becoming honesty about where he went wrong.

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