Flash Forward

Hillary Supporters Should Want to Complete Ferraro’s Unfinished Business

A new documentary film on the first woman on a White House ticket is full of emotions Clinton should tap for 2016. They could help her make history.

Suzanne Plunkett/AP

A new documentary about Geraldine Ferraro is so stirring that it should be adopted by fans of Hillary Clinton as their go-to motivational movie. If she runs for president, Clinton will certainly need a message beyond “Elect me, I’m a woman.” But as the film shows, history is powerful. Framing her candidacy as part of a continuing journey toward equality for women could help Clinton neutralize potential negatives like her age, establishment ties, and also-ran status.

Clinton is a key figure in Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, which chronicles Ferraro’s life and pioneering role as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1984. She’s the one who articulates the sense of “unfinished business” that suffuses the film and is much on Ferraro’s mind toward the end of her life.

“I hope you have your tissues,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright told a VIP-studded, largely female audience last week at a screening in Washington. It was good advice. To her credit, director Donna Zaccaro, Ferraro’s daughter, did not ignore controversies and setbacks in her mother’s career. But the thrust of the film, airing March 21 on Showtime as part of Women’s History Month, is uplifting: Ferraro’s push against the boundaries of her time, the emotion and exuberance of her rise from poverty to the apex of politics, and her faith in Clinton to finish the work of the founding mothers.

“She was going to do what I couldn’t do,” Ferraro tells Zaccaro in an interview in the year before her 2011 death from blood cancer. She says she felt Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton beside her as she cast her ballot for Clinton in the 2008 primary, then breaks down and asks for the camera to stop. Later, tears dried, she completes her thought: “I felt that the work that had been done for over 100 years could reach fruition. It was the first time I cried when I voted.”

That’s the kind of emotion Clinton could tap and why shouldn’t she? History is already being used against her, as Rand Paul labels her husband a “sexual predator” and the conservative Washington Free Beacon mines her late friend Diane Blair’s journals for damaging material. Clinton might as well harness history for her own purposes, bringing it alive for younger people and reviving it for those who have forgotten the intensity of Ferraro’s breakthrough moment.

As she weighs her decision on 2016, Clinton is operating in an environment radically changed from 1984, when activists were shocked that nominee Walter Mondale met their demand to name a female running mate, and even from as recently as 2008, when the United States shocked the world and itself by electing a black president. Ceilings are shattering all over, and overwhelming majorities of Americans now tell pollsters they expect a woman to be president in relatively short order.

The former First Lady, senator, and secretary of state could well be that feminist icon, though there would always be asterisks next to her name. She started on third base in electoral politics because she was married to a sitting president, and it’s impossible to know if she would have succeeded or even chosen to run for public office absent that marriage. And she stuck with her man despite a history of infidelity that culminated in the Monica Lewinsky scandal—a choice that baffled many women, raised questions about her feminist bona fides, and provoked public criticism of Clinton that persists even now.

The Ferraro narrative is less ambiguous, the story of a hard-driving woman who found ways to manage and transcend the constraints of a paternalistic era. She asked her husband’s permission to honor her mother by using her maiden name professionally. She went to law school because “I needed more” than the traditional women’s job of teaching. She negotiated a compromise over her husband’s wish that she stay home with their three children, as his mother did (Gerry: “I love your mother, but she’s not a lawyer”). She was a homemaker for 13 years, until all the last child was in school full-time, then plunged into law. She became an assistant district attorney and, in 1978, won a race for Congress on the slogan, “Finally… a tough Democrat.” On Capitol Hill, she became a favorite of House Speaker Tip O’Neill and other powerful Democrats. “She knew how to work those old guys,” former congressman Vic Fazio says in the film. “She could wheel and deal.”

Zaccaro says her mother often told her children, “God gave you a mouth, so use it.” That philosophy led Ferraro into trouble when she said in 2008 that Barack Obama would not have gotten where he was if he were not black. The backlash was severe; she was even called racist. In the film she says she herself wouldn’t have gotten where she did if she hadn’t been a woman. Clinton attributes the furor to the “incredibly complicated” politics of a woman and an African American man competing for the nomination, and says Ferraro was “unfairly criticized.” But she also reinforces the notion that sometimes people win support because of their race or gender. Ferraro, she says, “was 100 percentbehind me in part because she saw it as unfinished business.”

The Ferraro film makes no mention of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the first Republican woman on a national ticket. It does, however, get at the Hail Mary aspect of both picks by nominees behind in the polls. “I knew I was in trouble,” Mondale says in the movie. “I thought I had to shake it up.”

Even now, a decision he viewed as practical resonates with women as transformational. Nancy Pelosi—who 23 years later would become the first female speaker of the House—tears up in the film as she recalls the “spectacular” night Ferraro was nominated. Clinton says the message was so powerful that “even my Republican friends were thrilled. There was a sense of it being a watershed.”

The thrill subsided quickly when Republicans mounted an assault on the financial dealings of Ferraro’s husband. Mondale-Ferraro went on to lose 49 of 50 states to President Reagan, and it was 24 years before another woman ascended to a major party’s national ticket. Ferraro, assessing her contribution, says in the film that “there are things left to do, but it’s not necessary that I have to do them.” If Clinton runs, grabbing that baton could build the kind of excitement she’ll need to show she is not yesterday’s news.

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Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Ms. Zaccaro as Vacarro.