With so many Democratic women running for office in a year where Republicans are readying a scorched-earth campaign to retain power, it’s instructive to look back at what Democrat Geraldine Ferraro faced when she ran for vice president in 1984 as the first woman named to a major political party’s ticket.
Ronald Reagan’s team, while outwardly expressing confidence about his reelection, feared that Ferraro, a congresswoman from Queens and the daughter of Italian immigrants, could give Walter Mondale the boost he needed to overtake the aging president. Spurred on by first lady Nancy Reagan, the campaign went to extraordinary lengths to discredit Ferraro, some of which are only now coming to light.
The gender gap had always been Reagan’s weakness, his greatest vulnerability with the voters. While he would go on to easily win a second term, that wasn’t obvious in the summer of ’84. Ferraro was a wild card that could disrupt Reagan’s legacy.
On a kickoff tour in northern California, Ferraro was asked how she could reconcile her Catholic faith with her pro-choice politics. She turned the question back, telling the interviewer to ask Reagan how he justified his hardline policies toward the poor with his religious values.
Nancy Reagan, guardian of her husband’s image, took it as an attack on Reagan’s Christianity. She called Stu Spencer, the campaign’s chief strategist, ordering him to “Get everything on Ferraro.”
“We were caught completely flatfooted on her selection, the campaign had nothing on Ferraro,” says John Roberts, the campaign aide who Spencer tasked, along with Art Teele, a black Republican who had served as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Transportation, to find out what they could about Ferraro, and maintain “message discipline.” That meant keeping what they learned secret from the rest of the campaign so that nobody could leak information and have it boomerang. Pollster Richard Wirthlin found that even questioning Ferraro’s credentials was seen by voters as an unfair attack that could backfire.
The campaign was effectively muzzled, Roberts told the Daily Beast, when he and Teele began their mission, reporting only to Spencer, top aide Jim Baker, and the first lady, to insure secrecy and message discipline. They dove right into Ferraro’s greatest vulnerability, her husband’s real-estate deals, which indeed became a damaging distraction that undermined the historic nature of the ticket.
“We had a hand in a great deal of that,” says Roberts. “We developed information that led to his conviction.” (John Zaccaro, Ferraro’s husband, was convicted after the campaign for fraudulently obtaining a bank loan. He paid a fine and served 150 hours of community service.)
Roberts is now a communications consultant in Colorado, and he reached out to me wanting to tell this story. He and Teele, who is now deceased, worked closely with the media, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Post in particular, planting negative stories, and they had informants who had previously been at the Justice Department and the CIA , law enforcement types who had worked on criminal matters having to do with the Mafia. The goal was to tie Zaccaro, and Ferraro by implication, to the mob.
Roberts recalls a “major score” when a story they had unearthed and given to the New York Post ran on October 11, the day of the vice presidential debate. Ferraro read it on the campaign plane and was shell-shocked by the news itself— that her parents had been arrested in 1944 on charges of running a numbers game—and mortified for her mother, who was still alive and who had kept her arrest record from her daughter. Ferraro’s father had died shortly after the charges were brought and her mother was never prosecuted.
Ferraro had been eight or nine at the time of her parent’s arrest and only learned of the charges from the Post story. “I thought about that one for a while after, it felt slimy,” says Roberts. “From a political campaign standpoint, it was a major score, I don’t know if it was a home run, definitely second or third. But from a human standpoint, it felt kind of slimy.”
Roberts and Teele sought information aggressively and methodically, hiring a team of tax lawyers and another of accountants to go over irregularities in Ferraro’s reports to Congress and Zaccaro’s tax filings. The two teams were kept separate and didn’t know about the other, which was a way to cross-check information and keep it secret. One of the groups was headed by a former head of the IRS.
“They (the Reagan high command, Nancy and Jim Baker) wanted it done, Stu Spencer was the intermediary, and we were the guys crazy enough to do it,” says Roberts, recalling Roger Stone dropping a transcript on his desk of a briefing among officials at HUD about public housing records that might have involved Zaccaro. Stone claimed he didn’t know how he got it, but then as now he operated on the shady side of the street. “We shut that down,” says Roberts. “This is a way to go to jail.”
Not that they were boy scouts, but after that, Roberts and Teele put out the word that if anyone asks you to do anything for the campaign, please check with Stu Spencer “The greatest risk when you’re doing these things is zealotry,” says Roberts, who had worked in the Reagan White House in an office that reported to top aide Ed Meese before joining the ’84 campaign. “You have to know where to draw the line, it’s black or white, there are a few grey spaces but not many. On that transcript I was given, somebody crossed the line.”
Roberts and Teele developed a relationship at the Philadelphia Inquirer with investigative reporter Don Barlett and his editor. Explaining the arrangement, Roberts says, “We pitched them on how we would develop leads they would have to independently corroborate, and not source it to us. We have access to tips and they agreed not to identify us. We basically lied to them, said we worked on the (Reagan) campaign and we were troubled by what we heard about Ferraro. We presented ourselves as rogue operators, cowboys. If the campaign knew we were doing this, they’d cut us off. We promised not to give the information to anyone else.”
How many stories did they plant? “Lots of them,” says Roberts, and they were almost entirely about organized crime connections to Ferraro. That hurt Ferraro and helped sink the Democratic ticket, which was likely to lose regardless. It was “Morning in America,” Reagan’s campaign theme, the economy was good, and Reagan was popular.
Even so, tagging Ferraro with the mafia label was bogus, and Rogers knew it. “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.”
Zaccaro’s father and uncle had mob connections, and the Inquirer’s digging into that added up to a damaging story, “and most importantly, it got Nancy off our backs,” says Roberts.
Roberts together with campaign manager Ed Rollins met with Roy Cohn, the New York fixer who was the attorney for the Gambino family, who had some dirt on Zaccaro he wanted to share. “He said he was happy to go out and have a press conference, he wanted credit with the White House. We didn’t want to use him, too much baggage. We held him at arm’s length. If something came out, we much preferred the Philadelphia Inquirer make it public in a story.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer dispatched two reporters to West Point when Roberts and Teele told them they had a source there with explosive information about Ferraro’s family. The source wouldn’t talk over the phone, said it was dangerous, that he would only meet in person. “Roger Stone said he sounded like a nut,” says Roberts, but he and Teele chartered a plane to West Point.
The source was Cliff Barber, depository superintendent at the U.S. Bullion Depository at West Point. “He introduced himself noting the pistol he was carrying under his jacket,” says Roberts. “We thought we came all the way up here for a nut job.”
Barber wouldn’t meet with the Inquirer reporters, who made the trip in vain, but he delivered: a 1944 newspaper story from the Newburgh News documenting the arrest of Ferraro’s parents, together with newspaper ads for a burlesque joint that her father ran that was a cover for a numbers operation and that had mafia ties. Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York in 1935. Roberts and Teele gave the story to the New York Post.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, reporters besieged Ferraro with questions about the negative stories, how she felt about them, how they affected her, and on and on. She said she found the tone and the volume of stories examining her family’s background unusual. Asked why she thought that was happening, she said, “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.”
Her press secretary told reporters traveling with her 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.”
The extent to which the Reagan campaign stoked the negative stories about Ferraro almost came to light in late August of 1984 when NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel reported about a dirty tricks campaign against Ferraro. Roberts suspected Lee Atwater was the leak, and at the “morning attack meeting” run by Spencer the day the story broke, Roberts recalls Ed Rollins, the campaign manager, saying “this is how to lose the race, this is doing what shouldn’t be done.”
“Spencer told me to pack up, go to the beach, don’t talk to anyone. If we have to dump you, we will, but we’ll take care of you later.” Roberts went to the Outer Banks for a few days and then laid low until the story blew over. Spencer had his back one way or the other. He only felt slimy that one time. And once the polls showed Reagan’s victory looked assured, he left a lot of damaging leads about Ferraro on the table.
As for Art Teele, he came to a tragic end, shooting himself in the head in the lobby of the Miami Herald in 2005. He was distraught over investigative articles in the paper that had triggered charges of corruption against him.
Two years after he killed himself, his conviction for corruption was overturned.