Geraldine Ferraro Never Shrank from a Battle

My favorite memory of Geraldine Ferraro came at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, in San Francisco, the night she accepted the nomination to be Walter Mondale’s running mate and became the first ever female vice-presidential candidate from a major party. Dressed in white, she was beaming from ear to ear backstage. “Hey, Timmy,” she said to my late husband, Tim Russert, then working for New York governor Mario Cuomo, who had electrified Democrats with his keynote speech at the convention. “Not bad for two kids from Queens!”

Ferraro was fun to be with; she wasn’t a scold or a downer, which unfortunately was how many men in charge in those days thought of other women leaders, such as Congresswoman Bella Abzug. A former Queens assistant district attorney, “Gerry” knew how to get along with the guys. She was always quick with a quote, well put together, and thought of as “pert and spunky”—words that would never be used to describe a man, but they helped Ferraro make herself heard, especially to the powerful Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (she was a favorite of his). Nevertheless, she stood her ground on feminist issues—I covered her during the ill-fated push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. As a Catholic mother of three, she did not believe personally in abortion, but she defended the right to choose and was pilloried by Catholic bishops for her stand. She remained unbowed and often tried to deflect controversy with a raised eyebrow or an ironic smile.

Like Sarah Palin when she became John McCain’s running mate, Ferraro had to be introduced to much of the country, and then as now the rules for a female candidate were different. Retired NBC producer Susan LaSalla, who was assigned to cover Ferraro and later became close to her, remembers being confronted by the candidate on her campaign plane. “Why do you keep staring at me?” Ferraro asked. “Because you have blond hair and you are wearing all beige down to your shoes,” LaSalla said. “You are going to be on camera and all you are is beige-y.” The physical appearance of a female politician is never far from anyone’s mind.

Only a few weeks after her nomination, Ferraro got into hot water due to the shady business dealings of her husband, real-estate developer John Zaccaro. Ferraro held her own during a more-than-two-hour press conference in which she answered questions about Zaccaro’s refusal to submit his tax returns for scrutiny, but she never fully recovered, and the episode damaged the Democrats’ already slim chance of denying Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush a second term. In fact, another female-only word soon began to circulate to describe Ferraro—“shrill.” Bush got into trouble after the vice-presidential debate for boasting that he “kicked a little ass tonight,” but it didn’t stop his wife, Barbara, from entering the fray to deliver the next punch. When it became known that Ferraro was the wife of a millionaire, not exactly the working-class mom she was portrayed as, Barbara Bush called her a “four-million dollar—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”

Subsequently Ferraro ran for the Senate twice, losing in the Democratic primary in 1992 and 1998. In 2008, even while battling the cancer that eventually caused her death, she was a tireless activist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—she even attacked her old pal Tim Russert for what she felt was unfair treatment of Clinton. Ferraro never shrank from a battle when she thought she was on the right side. She was an old-fashioned New York liberal, and in those circles especially, “Gerry” has remained an icon for aspiring female politicians.

Last July, although Ferraro was so riddled with cancer that she could barely stand, she and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows in the same Manhattan church where they had been married. Susan LaSalla told me how they laughed because the church was still without air conditioning. At the altar, Zaccaro told his wife the same thing he had said on their wedding day: “It’s so hot in here, I can’t stand it!” According to LaSalla, theirs was a true love story, and even though her husband had helped derail her political dreams, when it came time for the vows, Ferraro stood up once again. That’s what anyone would say about her: Geraldine Ferraro was a stand-up gal.

Original Publication, March 2011.