Thirty-six years after Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman named to a major party ticket, we have a chance as a country to get it right, not just the outcome but the process itself. California Senator Kamala Harris is not a surprise out-of-the-box pick like Ferraro, a congresswoman from Queens. And there’s no expectation that it’s all on her—the way it was for Ferraro—to shake up the campaign and bring Joe Biden across the finish line.
The former vice president is doing fine in the polls, thank you. Harris is an added benefit, not the Hail Mary pass Ferraro was when another former vice president, Walter Mondale, made her his running mate at a time when he trailed Ronald Reagan badly.
The Reagan campaign in 1984 was blindsided by Ferraro. It had no opposition research on her, and the team was completely undone by the prospect of running against a woman. Pollster Richard Wirthlin hurriedly put together a poll that revealed the land mines ahead. Even questioning Ferraro’s credentials would invite a furious backlash from women, widening the gender gap that was seen as Reagan’s Achilles Heel.
The Trump campaign has had months to prepare, and Harris long ago attracted the president’s notice when she kicked off her campaign for president in January 2019 before a crowd of 20,000 in Oakland. Trump knows rallies, and commanding a crowd of that size with energy and verve takes talent.
Taking her down the way Ferraro was taken down won’t happen in a time of heightened gender awareness. Women have Harris’ back in a way that was unimaginable in Ferraro’s time. “The Trump campaign is going to have to do something they haven’t been successful at, which is to be very disciplined and take a hard look at what will turn off voters, especially female voters, and chart a course where they don’t hit those land mines,” says John Roberts, a former Reagan campaign operative whose new book, Reagan’s Cowboys, exposes the secret operation created at the insistence of first lady Nancy Reagan to find information to discredit Ferraro, focusing mainly on her husband’s alleged ties to the mafia.
Roberts recounts a meeting in the White House on July 13, 1984, the day after Ferraro was announced, with Roy Cohn. Yes, that Roy Cohn. He was there to share “inside information” with campaign manager Ed Rollins about the vice-presidential candidate’s ties to organized crime. Roberts describes Cohn as a “longtime intimate” of the Reagans. “He was involved, he kept coming up with ideas and tips, and some were correct,” Roberts told the Daily Beast.
At the time, Cohn was practicing law in New York and counted among his clients many familiar names in the mafia crime world, including the Gambino family. Cohn said that Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, through his real estate business, had ties to the mafia that he could expose. He offered to hold a series of news conferences and personally make the allegation that Ferraro was “mobbed up.”
If true, this was explosive information. But Cohn was not the right messenger. While they were meeting with Cohn, Mondale and Ferraro were on their kick-off tour, and Ferraro was asked how she squared her Catholicism with her pro-choice position. Her response: “President Reagan walks around calling himself a good Christian. I don’t for one minute believe it.” She pointed to the effect of Reagan’s policies on the poor and minorities.
Nancy Reagan was furious. She called Stu Spencer, the eminence grise of the campaign, and ordered him to “get everything on Ferraro.” Spencer deputized Roberts and another aide, Art Teale, who had led Blacks for Reagan in 1980, as a two-person super-secret inside operation to drive up Ferraro’s negatives and find information on her ties to organized crime.
It’s hard to believe with the benefit of hindsight and Reagan winning 49 states in 1984 the extent to which Nancy Reagan and the campaign felt threatened by Ferraro. They saw her as a triple threat: Catholic, Italian-American, and female, someone who could cut into Reagan’s vote with all three critical groups.
Roberts and Teale dubbed themselves “Reagan’s Cowboys,” and at the height of their research they were tracking 18 different mafia angles. Roberts took to routinely checking the undercarriage of his Mustang for a bomb just in case. They planted lots of stories with the mainstream media, and among their biggest finds were clippings from a local newspaper in Newburgh, New York, dated 1944, that described the arrest of Ferraro’s father and mother for numbers running. The mom and pop dime store Ferraro described so often in her story as the daughter of immigrants was really a front for a gambling operation.
Her father succumbed to a heart attack the day before his scheduled trial, and the authorities dropped charges against her mother. Ferraro was 8 or 9 years old at the time and was not aware of her parents’ activities. With the help of Roy Cohn’s contacts at the New York Post, the story ran big, noting that the indictment called Ferraro’s parents “common gamblers.”
The Post story appeared on Oct. 18, one week after the vice- presidential debate between George H. W. Bush and Ferraro. Asked what she thought of Ferraro’s performance, Barbara Bush said, “I can’t say it, it rhymes with rich.” Bush’s press secretary, Pete Teeley, followed up more directly, saying Ferraro came across as “too bitchy.”
Rogers worried that the Bushes piling on would create sympathy for Ferraro. In Wirthlin’s polling the only attacks on Ferraro that voters wanted to hear were about her husband’s taxes. She had endured a barrage of criticism for initially bowing to his insistence that his tax records remain private.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, reporters asked Ferraro about the volume of negative stories directed at her and her family. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m the first woman; I don’t know if it’s because I’m an Italian-American,” she said.
Her press secretary revealed that Ferraro cried after he told her about the Newburgh News article with the account of her parents’ arrest. Asked at a news conference if that was true, she replied, “I don’t cry easily.” When a reporter noted that didn’t answer the question, she said evenly, “I know it didn’t.”
When the Daily Beast first reported on Reagan’s Cowboys in 2018, when a record number of women were running for president, Roberts said he felt “slimy” digging up information on Ferraro’s parents that she was too young to be aware of at the time.
“That’s still true,” he says. “It’s one of those moves you sit back, and you think about how she didn’t know, her kids didn’t know–and her mother was still alive. Think how proud she must have been about her daughter, and we’re dropping a 40-year-old arrest regarding her father for the world to see. There was enough there you had to look into it, but nobody ever produced information that I have seen that Ferraro knowingly was doing business with the mob.”
Rogers told The Daily Beast two years ago when he began work on his book that tagging Ferraro with the mafia label was bogus: “She herself aside from receiving some contributions and her husband who had some dealings with the Gambinos, I don’t think either of them were mobbed up in any significant way. It was the previous generation.”
After the campaign, John Zaccaro, Ferraro’s husband, was convicted for fraudulently obtaining a bank loan. He paid a fine and served 150 hours of community service. Ferraro died at age 75 in 2011. Zaccaro, 87, is still alive.
If there’s a cautionary tale here for the first woman on a Democratic ticket since Ferraro, it’s that anything goes—from the Oval Office on down. And this time, there’s no need for secret operatives. President Trump himself set the tone minutes after Harris was announced, repeatedly calling her “nasty” and showing no inclination to try to hide his tracks as he tries to trample over the country’s attempt to make long overdue history.