Does the political system deserve our trust?

Managing Editor

Newspaper reporters, editors and publishers attended the 149th Minnesota Newspaper Association’s annual convention on Jan. 28 and 29 in Bloomington.

It was a chance for them to get energized about the business of news gathering. There were healthy doses of instruction on the emerging aspects of journalism along with seminars on the nuts and bolts of public affairs reporting, the telling of human interest feature stories and election coverage as we head into a presidential election this year to pick our next president of the United States.

Photo by Jim Boyle  Former Vice President Walter Mondale spoke Jan. 29 at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention.
Photo by Jim Boyle
Former Vice President Walter Mondale spoke Jan. 29 at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention.

Former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale – whose record of public service includes a vice presidency under Jimmy Carter as well as stints as United States ambassador to Japan, U.S. senator and attorney general for Minnesota – offered a pep talk of sorts to journalists at the convention’s Friday luncheon. He took off on convention’s theme of newspapers being the foundation of vibrant communities.

Mondale, 88, was born in Ceylon, Minnesota, in 1928 and he spent his boyhood attending public schools in the equally small southern towns of Elmore and Heron Lake.

“The local newspaper was a big deal,” Mondale said. “That’s how people stayed connected with things.”

There are now multiple ways for citizens to stay connected, but small town newspapers remain central to that effort.

Mondale talked of how newspapers have prevailed in difficult times, reformed and become stronger. Efforts were made at this year’s convention to improve newspapers’ presence on social media and through the use of video. This is all good.

Mondale, however, stressed the need to tell the stories of political candidates and to ask the tough questions to uncover who they really are, where they truly stand and whether they will be good for democracy and the country.

There are big issues, just like when he got his start in 1964  on his 12-year career in the U.S. Senate. That’s when bipartisan efforts led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He said he and his old friend Bob Dole, who he served with in the U.S. Senate and later debated in a run for the vice presidency in 1976, are both convinced that the quality and spirit of public life has changed.

“If you look at the record, we did fight, we did debate, but then we sat down and moved on to do the nation’s business,” Mondale said.

Debates were healthy. They were tough but didn’t divide the country. They were fundamentally good in spirit.

“I am very troubled, and many of you are, too, about the rigid, harsh, unbending rhetoric and paralysis of our public life,” Mondale said, before bringing up the late Judge Learned Hand who said, “The spirit of liberty is a spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

When is the last time you heard a politician running for office or otherwise suggest they may be wrong about something? Mondale said such nobility is needed to do the nation’s business.

“It’s not that we take problems lightly,” Mondale said. “It’s that we do it with a spirit of nobility and honesty.”

Chief of among his concerns are the oceans of big money sloshing around in political campaigns, which he fears are compromising and corrupting the political system.

“I don’t think today’s system deserves the public’s trust,” he said, calling for decent limits to be imposed.

Mondale also questions the caucus system on a couple of fronts in America. He would prefer to see the country move away from starting with caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire to a system where the location and order of caucuses are done on a rotation.

He said Iowa is not representative of America and 40 percent of the electorate in New Hampshire considers itself independent until they pick a side during caucuses after they figure out who can do the most good or most damage.

Here in Minnesota, he said, he would prefer direct elections to the caucuses, which are held on a Tuesday evening, and because of that prevent many people from participating and having an influence.

Mondale questions who will influence elections this fall? Will the system be as it supposed to be, and by that he  means “of the people, by the people and for the people”?

Or have we lost that?

Is the outcome in the hands of big money. Are the caucuses in the hands of too few. These are important questions to be asked. I hope they get asked and honestly answered. — Jim Boyle, editor