That time when Walter Mondale reviewed 'Nixon in China'

Former Vice President Walter Mondale speaks during a birthday celebration for his 90th birthday in Minneapolis in 2018.Tom Baker for MPR News

2005: Walter Mondale at the Opera


April 20, 2021

Editor’s note: Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who died Monday at 93, once reviewed Minnesota Opera’s production of John Adams’ Nixon in China for Minnesota Public Radio. Here’s host Tom Crann’s report on that special occasion in St. Paul from May 20, 2005.

The Minnesota Opera is taking the term "political theater" literally these days. Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Mao Zedong are all main characters in the Opera's current production, Nixon in China, playing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. At a recent performance, MPR's Tom Crann got the perspective of a man who's no stranger to the political stage himself — former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Joan and Walter Mondale
Sen. Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale in 1972.
Minnesota Historical Society

He was one of Minnesota's U.S. senators in 1972, when President Nixon shocked the world by flying to communist China in the middle of the Vietnam War.

"It was a tremendous and awesome event in modern world history," Mondale says.

Mr. Mondale vividly remembers watching, with the rest of the world, as Richard and Pat Nixon arrived in China — exiting Air Force One to greet Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-Lai on the tarmac.

"There were a bunch of senators in the Senate cloak room watching this unbelievable event," Mondale recalls. "And it was unbelievable for old Democrats like me, because Nixon had spent his life running against the Chinese communists. To think that this was the person who would make this big about-face and open up relations with China was doubly astounding."

As for the opera itself, Mondale says it has made him look at, and remember the events in a new way.

"Here's a poet and an artist looking at the same story. I look at it politically. He looks at it personally and poetically," Mondale says.

The opera set includes several television sets running video of scenes of the actual events of 1972.

"For people like us who lived through it, to be able to see those very moments again as the opera moves forward — I've never seen it done like this before," Mondale says.

To hear Mondale's complete interview and review, listen to the audio above.