The moment of truth
for vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was her debate against George
H.W. Bush on
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
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
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
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.
But just as memorable
as the honing of positions was the bantering, self-deprecating atmosphere. One of Gerry Ferraro's wonderful qualities was to keep everyone
loose and not take herself too seriously (even as she knew the importance of
the coming confrontation in the
Bob Barnett, who played Bush in the mock debates, showed up with a colored cloth preppy wristband for his watch. Ferraro developed her own outrageous mock answers which she would slip into serious practice sessions. She told her team that she planned to walk on stage, kiss the vice president on the lips and call him "Poppy." And during the run-up to the debates, when it came out that the Ferraros had substantial net worth and several houses, Barbara Bush remarked that Geraldine Ferraro was a "four million dollar.... I won't say it but it rhymes with rich." Mrs. Bush later "clarified" that she meant "witch." Inside the studio, Ms. Ferraro did a number of riffs about herself (and others who shall go unnamed) on words that also rhymed with rich, always with great good humor.
The debate itself
showed that Gerry Ferraro's
self-confidence was well-founded. With poise, humor and substance, she went
toe-to-toe with the vice president for 90 minutes.
Afterwards, instant polls showed the debate a draw, and that was the view of many other commentators. But a draw for a three-term congresswoman against someone with Bush's vaunted resume.....
The most famous line of the debate, of course,
was Geraldine Ferraro's. The vice president began an answer by saying:
"Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between
In the years after, I would see Gerry Ferraro at this occasion or that. I had only worked for her for a couple of weeks in a minor role, but she was always warm and enthusiastic and full of that smart, savvy humor which she displayed so unfailingly during the debate episode. Like so many who knew her so much better, I will greatly miss this pioneer in American politics.
After the debate was over, Vice President Bush remarked into a still open mic that he had "kicked a little ass." Given the expectations before the debate, I felt, along with so many others, that it was actually the other way round.
Image credit: Associated Press
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