Opinion: Geraldine Ferraro and the ‘dark backward and abysm’ of political time

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About Geraldine Ferraro, who died over the weekend. There had been a rather unpleasant patch there in early 2008 after Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton, told the Daily Breeze that ‘If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position [as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination].’ Or if he had been a woman, period, she said.

Some of Barack Obama’s supporters had criticized those remarks as racist; Obama dismissed those comments as ‘absurd.’ Ferraro then compounded her problems; she denied she was a racist, and said, ‘I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?’ She soon resigned from Clinton’s finance committee. Obama went on to win the nomination, over Clinton, and the presidency, over John McCain and Sarah Palin -- the second woman on a national major-party ticket. [Other women have run, such as Shirley Chisholm and Victoria Woodhull, but did not make it to the two-party top.]

But what Geraldine Ferraro is memorable and remembered for is that moment in a San Francisco summer of 1984 when she became the first woman on a major national ticket, former Vice President Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate.

For every woman of my acquaintance, of every age and political stripe -– Republican and Democratic, my mother, my grandmother, women I encountered every day -- it was an extraordinary moment. To use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase from a different context altogether, ‘one of us’ was, for the first time, up there with the guys.


This was eight years before 1992, the ‘Year of the Woman,’ put more women than ever on Capitol Hill. Seeing Ferraro on the nominating platform with Mondale, I did wince at the girly looking sleeves on her ensemble; this must have been before style consultants had a heftier voice on what candidates, male and female, should wear to convey gravitas and sincerity.

But what I remember most about that 1984 general election campaign is how shocked I was –- naively, I suppose -- by the stupefyingly bald sexism in the campaign against her.

The Republican nominating convention followed the Democratic one, and vendors at the GOP event in Dallas were ready with campaign buttons about the Democratic ticket. Mondale’s nickname was Fritz, and buttons mocked the Democrats with variants of ‘Fritz and Tits.’ Another showed Mondale on all fours, like a dog, with Ferraro holding his leash and saying, ‘Hurry up, Fritz!’

There were others, too: one button reading ‘Keep Wally and the Beaver Out of the White House’ [and a variant, which might have been Republican irony or some misguided Democrat’s idea of humor, ‘Vote for Wally and the Beaver in ’84'].

After Ferraro appeared on a national news program and demanded an apology from conservative columnist George Will about something he’d said about her, Will did not apologize -– but he did, as The Times reported, have his secretary send her a dozen roses with a note reading: ‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re cute when you’re angry?’

A few weeks before the election, and after questions arose about Ferraro’s husband’s [separate] tax returns and the family income, Barbara Bush, herself a member of a wealthy family, remarked that Ferraro was, as she put it, ‘That $4-million -- I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.’ Clearly the word in question was ‘bitch;’ had it been, as was later suggested, ‘witch,’ there’s no reason why that ordinary g-rated word could not be said. The future First Lady later apologized.

The Mondale strategy of putting a woman on the ticket wasn’t the ticket to the White House. It would be 24 years before another woman would appear on a national ticket -- Republican Palin -- and that strategy wasn’t a winning one, either. Apropos of Palin, Ferraro remarked, ‘Every time a woman runs, women win.’

That’s women’s political equivalent to the line astronaut Neil Armstrong had planned [if not precisely uttered] for the first footfall on the moon: ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Or as the contemporary rewrite might have it, ‘That’s one small step for a human, one giant leap for humankind.’

-- Patt Morrison