Mondale, of Norwegian descent, was born in Ceylon, Minnesota, the son of a Methodist minister. He was educated at Macalester College in St. Paul and the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1951. He then served two years at Fort Knox, in the United States Army during the Korean War. He gained a law degree in 1956 and began to practice law in Minneapolis.
He managed the re-election campaign of Governor Orville Freeman, who in return in 1960 appointed Mondale State attorney general. He spent two terms as attorney general. When Hubert H. Humphrey was elected Vice President in 1964, Mondale was appointed to Humphrey's seat in the Senate. Mondale was elected to the seat in 1966 and re-elected in 1972.
Walter Mondale gained notoriety for his role in the Apollo 1 investigation. Mondale attempted to show that NASA was dangerous and a waste of taxpayer money. His ultimate goal was that this money should be directed into social services. Many people came away from the experience with the belief that Mondale was on a witch hunt.
When Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, he chose Mondale as his running mate. Mondale was inaugurated as Vice President on January 20, 1977. Carter and Mondale were renominated at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but lost to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. (See U.S. presidential election, 1976, U.S. presidential election, 1980.)
After a brief return to the practice of law, Mondale won the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1984 election. He chose Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, making her the first woman nominated for that position by a major party. Mondale ran a liberal campaign, supporting a nuclear freeze and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). He spoke against what he considered to be unfairness in Reagan's economic policies and the need to reduce federal budget deficits.
When he made his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, Mondale said: "Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Although he intended this to demonstrate that he was honest while Reagan was hypocritical, it was widely remembered as simply a campaign pledge to raise taxes, and it hurt him in the end. In 1986, Reagan did sign into law a bill that raised taxes for corporations, but at the same time cut taxes further for individual taxpayers.
In the 1984 election, Mondale was defeated in a landslide, winning only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota, thus securing only 13 electoral votes to Reagan's 525. Following the election, Mondale returned again to private law practice, with Dorsey & Whitney in Minnesota in 1987. From 1986 to 1993, Mondale was chairman of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, he was ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, chaired a bipartisan group to study campaign finance reform, and was Clinton's representative in Indonesia in 1998.
In 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who was running for re-election, died just weeks before the election. Mondale, at age 74, replaced Wellstone on the ballot, but narrowly lost the election to Republican opponent Norm Coleman. Upon conceding the election, Mondale said, "At the end of what will be my last campaign, I want to say to Minnesota, you always treated me well, you always listened to me." Mondale finished with 1,067,246 votes (47.34%) to Coleman's 1,116,697 (49.53%) out of 2,254,639 votes cast.