The Inside Story of Ferraro's 1984 Debate Prep


The moment of truth for vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was her debate against George H.W. Bush on October 11, 1984.

How would she, a three-term member of Congress, stand up against the man who had been ambassador to China and the U.N, headed the CIA, and for the previous four years served as vice president of the United States?

The high command at the headquarters of presidential candidate Walter Mondale may have been worried. Her own campaign staff may have been concerned. But one person was utterly self-confident: the candidate herself.

I was fortunate to have worked closely with Geraldine Ferraro on this historic debate. In mid-September of 1984, the Mondale campaign asked Anne Wexler (former senior advisor to President Carter) and Bob Barnett (former Mondale Senate staffer and already a leading Washington lawyer) to organize a debate team to work with candidate Ferraro. As a former Department of Health, Education and Welfare assistant secretary for lost causes (planning and evaluation), I was asked to co-head domestic affairs prep with Rob Liberatore, then chief of staff to Minority Leader Robert Byrd. Madeleine Albright, former member of the National Security Council under Zbigniew Brezinski and then at Georgetown University, was the lead on foreign policy.

Rarely have so few had so much fun in so short a time under so much pressure (Mondale was behind, but with presidential debates ahead, anything could happen -- unless the vice presidential debate was a Democratic disaster). And, of course, this was because Gerry Ferraro was a tough, smart, savvy, fearless, funny woman who was totally authentic -- there was no difference between the public person and the private person. She knew she was carrying the hopes of women everywhere, and she thrived on the chance to make a powerful statement.

My first encounter with the candidate was on a Sunday afternoon about two weeks before the debate when Bob Barnett and I lugged two huge briefing books to her home in Queens. The debate team had vacuumed the universe on all imaginable issues, and we had produced enough indigestible material to choke a PhD candidate preparing for oral exams. Gerry was watching a Jets game, calling out for her husband John to bring us coffee and petting her dog (which as I recall, though I could be wrong, was a large black lab). She greeted us warmly but regarded our briefing materials with appropriate disdain -- a view shared by the dog which, with tail wagging, put his head on our multi-tabbed work product to have his ears rubbed and slobbered all over them. "Perhaps you could reduce this to essential points and responses," the candidate said with an equable smile as we slunk out the door, lugging our rejected offerings.

When serious trial debates began a short while later, Gerry Ferraro showed a remarkable ability to assimilate information on a wide variety of subjects and then to articulate her position in a concise form in her own common sense way. She needed grist for her mill, but she didn't need handlers. With each session, we could see her appetite was whetted and that she was savoring the chance to go up against the vice president.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In