Written by Dick Polman. Originally published March 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
It's impossible to resurrect the buzz and sizzle of that now-distant summer when Geraldine Ferraro reigned oh so briefly as a gender icon.
Women wept at the sight of her. Young mothers toted their daughters and whispered about history. One mom told political reporter Jack Germond, "I'm showing my girls they can be president." Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, would later write that professional working women, having "grown used to being talked down to in a hundred different ways by men," viewed Ferraro's giddy ascent as "a kind of vindication of themselves." Indeed, one woman wrote Ferraro, "Thank you for my liberation. You have changed my life."
Ferraro's trajectory was all downhill after that. Tapped in July 1984 to be the first woman on a national ticket, she and her patron, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, were wiped out in a November landslide. Her incandescent moment was extinguished; Democrats swiftly consigned her to the ash heap of history. When she died at age 75, young Americans probably had to be reminded of her milestone; in all likelihood, they only knew her as the brassy Hillary Clinton partisan who racially dissed Barack Obama during the heat of the 2008 campaign – a cringe-worthy incident that tarnished her legacy.
But her death gives new life to her singular achievement. She got the nod to go first, just like Jackie Robinson, and nothing can erase that landmark. The purity of feeling unleashed by her convention acceptance speech lives forever online; as Tanya Melich, a Republican feminist, recalled a decade later, "Ferraro won our hearts that night, and none of the ugly campaign that followed took us far from her."
Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, 1984 (Diana Walker/TIME & LIFE Images)
It was indeed ugly. Politics can be a rough business – as Ferraro herself understood, having first elbowed aside the old-boy network to win four successive House races in an Archie Bunker-style Queens district – and doubly rough when the stakes are highest. She paid a heavy price for being first. The strategists working for incumbent President Ronald Reagan correctly sensed that his re-election was in the bag – the economy was on the upswing, and swing voters personally liked Reagan – but they wanted a blowout. To pull that off, they had to pop the Ferraro bubble, and return her to earth.
So they dispatched sleuths to New York to dig up dirt. They found plenty, and leaked it to the media. The stuff wasn't particularly juicy (complex monetary transactions seldom are), but it was sufficient to dent her halo and suggest to voters that she was just another politician.
Her husband, John Zaccaro, was a real estate wheeler-dealer who cut some corners; she, meanwhile, had never disclosed his finances on her House financial disclosure forms – which she technically was not required to do, because, as she told reporters, "we live two separate professional lives." That sounded very modern, very feminist. She had even kept her own name as she rose from Queens prosecutor to Congress. But the Zaccaro stories kept her on defense, and she made things worse by uttering a characteristically brassy remark: "You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like."
That crack was a gift to the Reagan team. Democratic nominee Mondale had chosen Ferraro as his running mate not merely because she might energize women voters, but also because she was an ethnic Catholic who might help prompt a lot of ex-Democratic voters (ethnic Catholics who were known in those days as "Reagan Democrats") to return to the fold. Democrats were particularly keen on winning back Italian men. So much for that idea.
The Mondale people grew so worried about Ferraro's high-octane style that they dialed her down for her autumn debate with the incumbent vice president, George H. W. Bush. By most accounts she did OK; at one point, she admonished the Reagan-Bush administration for a recent terrorist car bombing in Beirut ("Are we going to take proper precautions before we put Americans in situations where they're in danger, or are we just going to walk away?") – a necessary task, because, as a woman, she had to show she could be just as tough on bad guys. But her subdued demeanor won bad reviews.
On the other hand, Bush's wife, Barbara, insisted that Ferraro was generally too feisty for her tastes. Seeking to describe Ferraro, she said, "I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich" – which showed that the new paradigm candidate would never find a way to please everybody.
When Democrats sifted the wreckage of the November results, they discovered to their consternation that Ferraro hadn't helped the ticket much. Despite her historic presence, 57 percent of women voters had flocked to Reagan. And the ethnic Catholic men had stuck with him. As Thomas Mann of the American Political Science Association said later, "I think too much was expected of a Ferraro vice-presidential bid." He's right. Mondale may well have guaranteed Reagan's win, and rendered his female running mate superfluous, when he promised at the Democratic convention to raise people's taxes.
Geraldine Ferraro concedes the 1984 election (Bill Pierce/TIME & LIFE Images)
Ferraro spent most of her final 27 years under the radar, doing what so many ex-politicians do – writing books, giving speeches, commentating, consulting, trying and failing to get back into the electoral game. Then came the ignominious 2008 episode, when, as a volunteer member of Hillary Clinton's campaign finance committee, Ferraro unleashed another one-liner, this one aimed at the Democratic front-runner: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."
This was not Ferraro's finest hour. Ironically, her critics back in 1984 had used that same fatuous argument against her – that she never would have been tapped for the ticket had she been a man, that she was merely an affirmative action hire. Yet here she was airing the same grievance against Obama – sounding like Archie Bunker, and failing to address the obvious question: If Obama's skin color was intrinsically so beneficial, how come no previous black candidates had ever made it past square one?
In death, we may prefer to remember Ferraro's 1984 Democratic convention speech, when at one point she fused gender and racial aspirations by quoting Martin Luther King: "Occasionally in life there are moments which cannot be completely explained by words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.” Geraldine Ferraro will always have that moment, as will the women in politics who aspire to breach that final barrier.