Amid the perplexing cascade of world news about revolutions, atrocities, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the threat of nuclear contamination, word came that Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president of the United States, had died on March 26 of complications of blood
cancer. She was 75. The news media scarcely had room for her obituary.
There were a lot of complications in Geraldine Ferarro’s political life as well. I was in Moscone Center the night of her nomination at the Democratic Nation Convention. I saw her that one time, but I feel a personal connection to her all the same. I also feel a close personal connection to Tom Waits, though I only met him once. I am not immune to Celebrity Syndrome.
The convention was held in July 1984. I was working for a radio station. It was electrifying to see that historic moment when a woman actually ascended to the second spot on the ticket with Walter Mondale. There was a lot of optimism in the hall that night. Ferraro, a former congresswoman from Queens, N.Y. exclaimed, “If we can do this, we can do anything!” Anything meant trying to beat the popular incumbent president, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, of course, won the general election by a landslide.
But there was only elation that July night. Texas Governor Ann Richards gushed, “To think of the numbers of young women who can now aspire to anything.” The audacity of hope was the order of the day. A short-lived time, I’m afraid. I feel close to the late, wonderful Ann Richards. Sure, I met her only once, too, in a coffee shop on Fillmore Street.
Richards also addressed the convention in 1984:
Twelve years ago, Barbara Jordan, another Texas woman, made the keynote address to this convention – and two women in 160 years is about par for the course. But if you give us a chance, we can perform. Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels. You know, tonight I feel a little like I did when I played basketball in the eighth grade. I thought I looked real cute in my uniform and then I heard a boy yell from the bleachers, ‘Make that basket, bird legs.’
That loudmouthed kid did us a big favor. Nothing drives success like stinging ridicule from a ridiculous person.
Ferraro became a champion for feminists and bravely brought up the topic of abortion with the phrase “if I were pregnant,” or she’d say things like, “As the mother of a draft-age son …” She could play with the big boys, but it was a tough campaign. There were rumors that Ferraro’s husband was a mobster. There were questions about his real estate deals. She had to defend him in the middle of the campaign.
Also considered for the ticket at the convention were Hillary Clinton and then Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Was Ferraro a liability to the ticket? The same liability question arose when, 24 years later, Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president on the GOP ticket. Yes, 24 years would pass before another woman would appear on the presidential ticket. And, sadly, it had to be Sarah Palin. This is hardly progress. The other high point of the convention was the keynote address by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who gave one of the best speeches in American political history. Cuomo painted Reagan as an unfeeling, out-of-touch autocrat:
A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
Wow. This was 1984. And they thought they were in trouble then?
Is this the time when I should write, “We’ve come a long way, baby”? Forget it. As Geraldine Ferraro was fond of saying, “What? Are you crazy?”
Bruce Bellingham also writes for the Marina Times and is a visiting professor at the School of Diminishing Returns. Torment him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Final Word