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03.26.11

Geraldine Ferraro Dies: Memories of Her 1984 Campaign

America's first female VP candidate on a major party ticket died today at 75. Lynn Sherr, who traveled with Ferraro on her groundbreaking 1984 campaign, recalls the congresswoman's electrifying debut, the way she inspired women all over the country—and how she handled her loss with grace.

America's first female VP candidate on a major party ticket died today at 75. Lynn Sherr, who traveled with Ferraro on her groundbreaking 1984 campaign, recalls the congresswoman's electrifying debut, the way she inspired women all over the country—and how she handled her loss with grace. Plus, Mark Katz remembers Geraldine Ferraro's great sense of humor.

Geraldine Ferraro opened the door to her Washington congressional office, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to the mirror above her fireplace. "C'mere," she said in her brisk Queens cadence. "C'mere. I have to see what everyone's talking about."

Photos: Geraldine Ferraro

It was the summer of 1984, the first time I'd met her, and the two of us stood side by side gazing at each other's reflection. Everyone, it seems, was right. We did look alike, with our nearly identical short, thatched, and blond-streaked hair, our high cheekbones and strong chins. True, I was some four inches taller than the congresswoman, and she had a few years on me ("Too much gray in my hair," she complained candidly). But the similarities were glaring. We laughed and said hello properly. This campaign would certainly be interesting.

Ferraro had just become Walter Mondale's vice presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket. She was also my assignment, thank goodness. As the first female nominated by a major party, Ferraro represented far more than the usual attempt to balance the ticket and sway the electorate. This was history of another dimension, and everyone—including Ferraro—knew it. "Thank you Vice President Mondale," she said with characteristic humor at the press conference in Minnesota when he announced his choice. "Vice president—it has such a nice ring to it."

The announcement came, ironically, on the anniversary of the date in 1848 of the first women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York. A time when women did not have the right to vote, let alone the chance to run. But the feminist breakthrough did not resonate universally. Back in San Francisco, one of the first people I ran into was Claude Pepper, the legendary Florida Democrat who reflected the feelings of several earlier generations. "She's a bit strident," he told me, when I asked about his reaction to her nomination, "and some men don't like that in a woman."

Nor did some women. But with one glaring exception (more on that later), Ferraro never let down the feminists, never slipped into either silly rhetoric or outmoded bombast when it came to women's issues. She was true to the women who idolized her presence because she was authentically one of them, a modern American female who understood the insidious damage of sex discrimination; a loving mother who had taken time out of her career to raise three children and still make breakfast for them daily; and an accomplished professional who genuinely cared about opportunities for women of lesser means.

She was that rare politician, a seasoned vote getter with two feet firmly planted on the ground.

She was that rare politician, a seasoned vote getter with two feet firmly planted on the ground, an individual who appeared to embody those Everywoman traits that would make her connect with the electorate. Her worst fear, she confessed early on, was "messing up in a TV interview."

Her nomination on national television was electrifying. The hall was flooded with women, in part because of people like the male ABC producer who urged the men in our backstage newsroom, "OK, guys, anyone with a pass, give it to a woman. It's their day." Out on the floor, Bella Abzug was joyfully passing out cigars that were stamped, "It's a girl." You could feel the crackle in the supercharged air of a gender whose time had come.

As a floor reporter for ABC News, I was tingling as well, because of the moment, because of the anticipation of the upcoming campaign, because of the history-making months I was about to watch first hand. "Ger-ry, Ger-ry!" the crowds started to chant, drowning out a roaring chorus of "Ayes" as the first women ever nominated to a major party ticket took her place in the hearts of the party and the history books of the nation. The band played "New York, New York," and "King of the Hill," and people who had never before met hugged and kissed like old lovers.

"My name is Geraldine Ferraro," she began, a firm voice from a tiny woman, pronouncing the words many American women thought they'd never hear from one of their own. "I proudly accept your nomination for vice president of the United States." She praised Walter Mondale and attacked Ronald Reagan, but got the biggest cheers for just being there. "By choosing a woman to run for your nation's second highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement."

I saw tears in the eyes of women around me; I saw Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug dancing in the aisles; I saw women who had never before been on the floor of a political convention staring in happy reverence. And when she delivered the payoff she set off tumultuous cheering, in and out of the hall: "If we can do this, we can do anything."

Well, sort of. The Democrats were 16 points behind; no vice presidential candidate had, or has, ever won an election for his boss, and Geraldine Ferraro's skirt hems could never have been long enough.

Still, the campaign continued to break barriers, with the largest collection of female correspondents and producers and technicians on any major political campaign, covering the largest collection of female staff members and advisers for the first female vice presidential candidate. Ferraro drew record, rapturous crowds—Democrats and Republicans alike—mostly women, with many men holding up their little daughters. They couldn't get enough of her, from her home turf in Queens to Ronald Reagan's backyard in Santa Barbara, California; nearly 5,000 women at a breakfast in Dallas for which fewer than half had signed up; a group of waitresses in San Jose, California, writing out checks for $65 that they could barely afford because they wanted to be there. There was the T-shirt in Oregon reading FERRARO (in huge letters) and Mondale (teeny type). The sign that said "Women do it better" (whatever that means, grumbled a male correspondent, baffled). The sign held by a little girl in Elmira, New York: "When I grow up, I wanna be just like Gerry."

Watch: Ferraro's 1984 Convention Speech

Video screenshot

"This candidacy is not just a symbol, it's a breakthrough," Ferraro said over and over in her stump speech. "It's not just a statement: It's a bond between women all over America."

Where else could you find a candidate whose Diane von Furstenburg dress blew open as she crossed the tarmac, sending her in search of a brooch to pin it shut? She was a mother, so she instinctively picked up a baby and held it facing her chest, like her own child, rather than face front, like a basketball, as most of the men did, so the camera could see. She was a regular woman who on one occasion walked a California beach in her panty-hosed toes and on another parked her pocketbook with her (male) press secretary, Francis O'Brien. O'Brien gave new meaning to his title. He said he enjoyed ironing because it relaxed him, so he spent hours, or at least minutes, pressing the candidate's wardrobe while they discussed strategy at the end of the day.

Ferraro brought out the feminist souls lurking in countless American women and the playful nature of the least likely men. When Thomas Eagleton, himself once a brief vice presidential nominee, introduced Ferraro in Kansas City at a Truman High School event, he said, "It isn't a man—it's a her!"

And long before Hillary Clinton questioned the importance of baking cookies, Ferraro stood up to one Jim Buck Ross, the agricultural commissioner from Mississippi, when he sidetracked her campaign visit to a farm outside Jackson with a discussion of new crops they were developing. Ferraro didn't know much about catfish, crayfish, or grapes, but she was, she said, quite familiar with blueberries. "Can you bake a blueberry muffin?" asked Ross. "Sure can," Ferraro shot back. "Can you?" The commissioner demurred. "Down here in Mississippi, the men don't cook." Everyone was grinning, and the next day's headlines were adoring, but you had to wonder about the effect, if any, on the party's strategy to win southern votes.

And always there were the children. Ferraro received a letter from a woman named Connie Jo. She was from South Bend, Indiana, and she was writing about a youngster she knew. "Since she was 5, she's always said she would be the first lady president," Connie Jo wrote. "A month or more ago she called her mother into the living room and was so angry. 'Look at this on TV,' she said, 'they may make this lady vice president, now I'll never be first!' She was serious. Just thought you might enjoy this story. I think before it's over she'll be your fan."

But long before it was over, the ecstasy was pierced by a series of fatal missteps. Especially the first one. In August, already under fire for an alleged ethics violation by failing to disclose her husband's financial holdings, Ferraro backtracked on an earlier promise and announced that John Zaccaro's tax forms, filed separately from her own, would not be released. He had told her, she announced, "I'm not gonna tell you how to run the country; don't tell me how to run my business." Ferraro then delivered the line that astonished everyone: "You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like."

She said it casually, offhandedly, and I think it was supposed to be a kind of wink-wink joke. But it backfired big time. The tax issue would dog her campaign, preventing the Mondale message from getting to the public. And despite a bravura live performance three weeks later (wearing a pink suit) on the first day of the Republican Convention in Dallas, the campaign was tainted with the image of ill-gotten gains. The financial controversy did as much as anything to erase the word 'female' from her candidacy.

There were other mistakes: bad planning, lousy weather, wrong directions. One day as we were leaving Manhattan and headed for the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport to board our charter, the entire Ferraro motorcade was stopped, frozen in place at the entrance to the Triborough Bridge while another, more important motorcade sped by. I looked out the window and noted the very distinctive flags on the lead black limousine: The car belonged to Vice President Bush, leaving his opponent in the dust.

Ferraro brought out the feminist souls lurking in countless American women and the playful nature of the least likely men.

In late October I asked one of her advisers if he'd ever seen a campaign run like this. "I haven't seen a prom run like this," he told me.

Ferraro was also plagued by the anti-abortion movement, a flying wedge of picketers and demonstrators who interrupted almost every speech. Ferraro was a particularly juicy target—an observant Catholic who had differences with her church—and its powerful leaders. Ferraro responded by reaching into history. "Twenty-four years ago," she told one hostile crowd, "John F. Kennedy said, and I quote, 'I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me.' That is exactly my position today." Plenty of boos mixed in with the cheers. Photographs of bloody fetuses and signs like "Embryos for Reagan" showed up from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon. But Ferraro never wavered. She told me in our first interview that she didn't look at the signs. "It's an issue I've made my peace with…and the signs are not going to change my opinion." In Waterbury, Connecticut she responded to hecklers by saying, "I am always amazed about people concerned with the unborn but not the born."

Remember: It was 1984. Abortion was just becoming a hot-button issue. And as I pointed out after a particularly nettlesome day, Ferraro was the "first national candidate who can talk about abortion and use the word 'I.'" Producer Sharon Young and I had a mighty fight with the men on the desk in New York to get that radical thought on the air.

A number of people and institutions—including her opponent, George Bush, and The New York Times—were unable to wrap their minds around the concept of a woman keeping her own name, or being a "Ms.", and kept calling her Mrs. Ferraro. And just before the vice-presidential debate, Barbara Bush fired off a line destined for headline writers. Ferraro had just released financial reports, indicating that she and Zaccaro were comfortable millionaires. Mrs. Bush, in response to a reporter's question, said that she and George didn't pretend to be poor "like that $4 million—I can't say it, but it rhymes-with-rich." She later apologized to Ferraro and the candidate accepted her apology.

Despite the crushing campaign, Ferraro's good humor remained. On Election Day she showed up at a senior citizens' center back home in Queens and quipped, "When I walked in and heard you playing 'Roll Out the Barrel,' I thought you'd noticed I gained 10 pounds!"

That night, in the face of a shattering loss—the Democrats carried only Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and Ferraro's own congressional district went for Reagan—she found the gold in her candidacy. "The days of discrimination are numbered," she said. "American women will never be second-class citizens again."

Maybe. President Reagan had even won the women's vote, but an eight-point gender gap indicated that more women still tended to vote for Democrats than men. As for her effect on the ticket, one poll showed that 6 percent of Walter Mondale's voters switched to Mondale because of Ferraro. The same number switched to Ronald Reagan because of Ferraro.

Still, she remained convinced that her candidacy made a difference and told me this story: A woman, a state senator from Michigan, was at home with her niece and watching Ferraro on TV and tears started rolling down her cheeks. And her niece said, "Why are you crying?" And she answered, "Because all of a sudden I feel whole and I didn't realize I didn't feel whole before."

One month after the election, Ferraro went to Washington where she attended a conciliatory lunch with Vice President Bush. He gave her a photograph with the inscription, "To Geraldine: Let's debate; better still, let's not debate and be friends. Signed George Bush." Ferraro quipped, "There's always tomorrow."

There was not. Geraldine Ferraro served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, then lost her bid for the U.S. Senate in 1998 in a brutal primary. When the campaign ended, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that took her life on Saturday morning. She spent her last years as a lobbyist, a consultant, an analyst for Fox News, and a very happy grandmother. She had no regrets about her campaign for vice president. Nor should we. Someone had to go first, and Ferraro was the right choice. I'm glad I was there to record it 27 years ago. And I sure hope we don't have to wait another three decades to watch—or vote for—the next woman.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.