The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
44. Geraldine Ferraro

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The presidential campaign of 1984 had all the earmarks of being a dull one. After a bruising primary fight with Colorado Senator Gary Hart, Walter Mondale limped towards the Democratic Convention trailing incumbent president Ronald Reagan in the polls -- and trailing significantly. A Gallup poll released July 1, 1983 showed him losing to Reagan by 19 points, and a New York Times/CBS poll was only slightly less discouraging, showing Reagan with a 15 point lead. Gary Hart was refusing to concede the nomination, and Jesse Jackson was wielding the black vote over Mondale's head like a Sword of Damocles. The consensus in the Mondale camp was that the candidate needed to make a bold, unorthodox move to energize his followers and excite the voting public -- a move like choosing the first black or female vice-presidential candidate (on a major party ticket) in American history. Selecting Lloyd Bentsen of Texas or Dale Bumpers of Arkansas might have elicited at least small small hope that Mondale could compete against Reagan in the South, while picking rival Gary Hart might have contributed to unity in the party. But in the end these options were rejected as too conventional.
Two black mayors, Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, were briefly considered, but eventually there were four finalist in the Veep sweepstakes: San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis -- and Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from Queens. Cisneros was a bright, young, promising (if relatively inexperienced) politician, while Dukakis was something of a "New Democrat" who could appeal to the Hart constituency. But House Speaker Tip O'Neill, feminist writer Betty Friedan and others -- including Mondale's wife Joan -- urged Mondale to choose a woman. He finally opted for Ferraro because he wanted to attract blue-collar voters and stress middle-class values; Feinstein was wealthy, while Ferraro was a child of poor Italian immigrants. She had attended law school at night while teaching public school in Queens. She had been married to John Zaccaro since 1960 (Feinstein had been in three marriages.) Ferraro had been assistant district attorney in Queens, working in the Special Victims Bureau. In 1978 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York's Ninth Congressional District. In 1980 she was elected secretary of the Democratic caucus, and in 1984 was appointed chair of the platform committee. She was tough but feminine, warm but combative.
Ferraro's selection engendered a lot of excitement in the media and among the party faithful. She represented, said Mondale, the "classic American Dream." She also represented his campaign's hope of profiting from a supposed gender gap in President Reagan's support. But a CBS News/New York Times poll taken after Ferraro's selection revealed that a majority of both men and women were not all that enthusiastic about it, and 60 percent said they thought Mondale had made his choice because of pressure from women's groups. A recurring problem for Mondale was the widespread perception that he was a front-man for the special interests that pulled the Democratic Party's strings. He was, in short, an old-guard, New Deal liberal. Lee Atwater, deputy director of the Reagan campaign, believed the Ferraro choice guaranteed the president's reelection. It have the Democrats a "North-North" ticket (Mondale was a Minnesotan) that could not win. Atwater's strategy all along had been to secure the South and West for Reagan -- a total of 262 electoral votes, eight short of victory. Then all that was left was to steal one of Mondale's must-win states, like Ohio or Michigan. Atwater thought the Ferraro choice just made that job easier.
One advantage that the Ferraro selection gave Mondale was a united convention, something he desperately needed. In a single stroke he had snatched the spotlight away from challengers Hart and Jackson and focused it where it belonged, on the party's ticket. Mondale took another bold step in his acceptance speech. "Whoever is inaugurated in January," he told the flag-waving crowd packed into San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, "the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan's bills. Taxes will go up, and anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth. Let's tell the truth -- Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." In the wake of the convention, 65 percent of voters believed Ferraro was qualified to be VP. (Her acceptance speech was the emotional high point of the gathering.) And Mondale-Ferraro was favored 48-46 percent over Reagan-Bush. The Mondale camp appreciated the "bump" in the polls that usually came after a convention. But they knew they needed more. They needed a big voter turnout, and with that goal in mind undertook a vigorous campaign to register women, blacks and Hispanics. They also needed to lure "Reagan Democrats" -- ethnic blue-collar workers -- back home, and win the allegiance of the "yuppie voters" who had avidly supported Gary Hart. And finally they needed about 60 electoral votes from the South. The hope was that Ferraro would appeal to middle-class, "family value" voters from all regions.
Within a matter of weeks following the Democratic convention, Ferraro was in trouble. The media wondered why she had consistently avoided listing the business interests of her husband, a New York developer, on congressional financial disclosure forms. Then The Washington Post reported that John Zaccaro was renting warehouse space to a company that distributed pornography. Ferraro promised full income and tax disclosures, but later had to inform the press that her husband refused to comply, leaving the impression that he had something to hide. The press besieged her with questions, while the Mondale camp sent an army of attorneys and accountants to peruse all relevant documents. As she was quickly becoming a liability, there was some discussion in the Mondale camp of taking Ferraro's name off signs and bumper stickers -- though removing her from the ticket was never a serious consideration. That would have spelled doom for Mondale; it would have called his judgment into question and, besides, Ferraro was still immensely popular among the party faithful.
Rumors that Zaccaro owed back taxes, was connected to organized crime, and had raided a trust fund for which he was a conservator, were all matters that Ferraro and a battery of tax advisers tried to lay to rest in a press conference held August 21 at JFK Airport's Viscount Hotel. The VP nominee fielded questions for almost two hours, and she came across as calm, cool and firmly in command of the facts. The Zaccaros did owe $53,000 in back taxes, but they were paying it. John Zaccaro had borrowed $175,000 from a widow's trust fund, but had repaid the full amount, with interest. The networks proclaimed Ferraro innocent of all wrongdoing. The crisis was over. But Mondale and his aides knew that serious political damage had been done. Sometimes facts mattered less that perceptions. The gloss had worn off Geraldine Ferraro, and precious time and resources had been spent defending her.
Ferraro held her own in the vice-presidential debate with George Bush on October 11, 1984, but most pundits agreed that Bush came out ahead, adequately performing the difficult task laid out by one of his advisers: "Your assignment is to win, but not have her lose." Bush could not appear too patronizing, nor could he seem too deferential. But his comment at a rally for longshoremen in Elizabeth, New Jersey the morning after the debate -- that he had "tried to kick a little ass" -- became, as political reporters Jack Germond and Jules Witcover called it, a "classic campaign tempest in a teapot." As did a comment by Barbara Bush characterizing Ferraro as "a four million dollar -- I can't say it but it rhymes with rich" because, in the opinion of the vice-president's wife, Ferraro was masquerading as a working-class wife and mother.
When all was said and done, the general consensus was that Ferraro did not have a significant positive impact on the campaign -- or a negative one, for that matter. And while Mondale gained a little ground following a poor showing by Reagan in the first presidential debate, after the second debate most in the Mondale camp knew that the race was lost. The Reaganites successfully tarred Mondale as a tax-and-spend liberal of the old school, and most Americans were not at all interested in turning back the clock. The economy was booming, inflation and unemployment were down, and Reagan had solid personal approval ratings. He won 58.8 percent of the vote to Mondale's 40.6 percent, 54.6 million votes to 37.6 million, and captured 49 states. (He missed taking Mondale's home state of Minnesota by a scant 3,761 votes.) CBS News declared Reagan the winner at 8 PM on election night. It was a landslide victory. Walter Mondale's campaign would have quickly faded into historical oblivion but for the fact that he had chosen Geraldine Ferraro to be the first female vice-presidential candidate. As for Ferraro, she would take part in one more political campaign -- an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1992.

Excerpt from the Vice-Presidential Debate

(October 11, 1984, Civic Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; sponsored by the League of Women Voters; moderator: Sandy Vanocur (ABC News); panelists: John Mashek (U.S. News & World Report), Jack White (Time), Norma Quarles (NBC News), Robert Boyd (Knight-Ridder)

MASHEK: Congresswoman Ferraro, you and former Vice-President Mondale have criticized the president over the bombings in Lebanon, but what would you do to prevent such attacks?
FERRARO: Mr. Bush has referred to the embassy that was held in Iran. It was at that time that President Reagan . . . said: The United States has been embarrassed for the last time. In April of 1983 I was in Beirut and visited the ambassador at the embassy. Two weeks later, that embassy was bombed. The following October, there was another bombing and that bombing took place at the marine barracks, where there were 242 young men killed. President Reagan got up and he said: I'm commander in chief. I take responsibility. And we all waited for something to be done when he took responsibility. Well, last month we had our third bombing. Again the president said: I assume responsibility. I'd like to know what that means. Are we going to take proper precautions before we put Americans in situations where they're in danger?
VANOCUR: Vice-President Bush.
BUSH: Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon. Iran -- we were held hostage by a foreign government. In Lebanon you had a wanton, terrorist action where the government opposed it. We went to Lebanon to give peace a chance, to stop the bombing of civilians in Beirut, to remove 13,000 terrorists from Lebanon -- and we did. We saw the formation of a government of reconciliation and for somebody to suggest, as our two opponents have, that these men died in shame -- they better not tell the parents of those young marines.
VANOCUR: Congresswoman Ferraro.
FERRARO: Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy. And let me say further that no one has ever said those young men who were killed through the negligence of this administration and others ever died in shame.


Newsweek, 30 July 1984, 6 August 1984, 13 August 1984

Time, 23 July 1984, 24 September 1984

U.S. News & World Report, 23 July 1984, 3 September 1984, 24 September 1984

Campaign Journal: The Political Events of 1983-1984
Elizabeth Drew (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1985)

Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections
Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich & David W. Rohde
(Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1985)

Ferraro: My Story
Geraldine A. Ferraro & Linda Bird Francke (New York: Bantam Books, 1985)

Wake Us When It's Over: Presidential Politics of 1984
Jack Germond & Jules Witcover (New York: Macmillan, 1985)