It began in hope and euphoria of a kind that has touched American politics perhaps once or twice a century since Americans first replaced a foreign king with an elected President. A surging wave of tears and cheers greeted an Italian immigrant’s daughter as she stood before the Democratic Convention in San Francisco last July to proclaim in ringing tones—with a touch of an Archie Bunker accent—that “America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.” The emotion of that moment was not mere partisan pride, factional fervor. This was the exultation of embarking on a promising frontier, of emancipation, of suffrage extended, of American democracy once more entering a new world.
Half a year later, part of that dream had ended. Geraldine Ferraro, 49, the first woman to run for national office on a major-party ticket, sat in her cramped Congressional office amid piles of packing cartons, books and documents, whose disarray signified a life thrust into abrupt transition. The Democrats had been crushed in the second biggest electoral landslide in modern times. Ferraro was found guilty of violating House rules by failing to disclose information about her husband’s tangled finances. Now the three-term Queens Congresswoman was heading home, returning to private life after a historic political journey whose dizzying joys and punishments she never could have envisioned one short year before.
Yet what American politician, in defeat, had ever won so much? Her endorsement by the National Organization for Women was predictable, but NOW’s assessment of her influence was no less accurate. “No one asks anymore if women can raise the money, if women can take the heat, if women have the stamina for the toughest political campaigns in this country,” said NOW president Judy Goldsmith. “Geraldine Ferraro did them all.”
She brought unprecedented attention to a Vice-Presidential candidacy throughout the campaign. Her running mate, Walter Mondale, observed that when he ran as Jimmy Carter’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1976, he received national coverage by CBS-TV news exactly once. This year Ferraro made headlines nearly every day—and she paid the price for the exposure.
Within a month of her nomination, Ferraro was besieged by damaging questions about husband John Zaccaro’s tax returns and real-estate deals. The politically conservative but lurid New York Post accused her husband of Mafia ties and even went back 40 years to level gambling charges against her parents. Her marriage felt the strain. “There were times when I worried that John might break under the pressure,” Ferraro said. “One day he said, ‘I’m so embarrassed by all this.’ He’s a strong man, but I worried about him.” Zaccaro said bitterly, “I really didn’t anticipate all the slurs and innuendos about being Italian, but it’s part of the game.”
Ferraro was further burdened by skepticism about her experience and by attacks from the Catholic Church and right-to-life groups against her position on abortion. Her family again became a target. “Once somebody asked me my mother’s stand on abortion, and I started to say she was pro-choice, when someone screamed out, ‘You mean she is pro-murder,’ ” recalls daughter Laura Zaccaro. “I was so stunned I couldn’t answer. It was times like that when it would hurt.”
The trial by fire irked many observers, particularly women, who felt Ferraro was singled out because of her gender. The Catholic Church, for example, had never attacked Catholic male politicians like Ted Kennedy, who held positions similar to Ferraro’s on abortion.
Perhaps more than most, the woman who was Ferraro’s closest rival for the nomination, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, 51, could appreciate the pressure. “I don’t think any Vice-Presidential candidate has ever made the in-depth disclosures Geraldine Ferraro did,” says Feinstein. “It almost looked as if there was a search just to find something wrong. I feel a great sense of relief I didn’t have to go through it. For a woman there really are no role models. The person has to come through not only for what they are saying but for their whole, total being. That’s a very difficult mission to fulfill.”
Feinstein sees another problem. “For a woman, there’s a strange Catch-22. People want the catchy phrases, the smart sayings, the pizzazz, and yet very often those things turn off large numbers of people,” she says. “Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher have really been very reserved in their public presence, and there’s a reason for it. Everybody’s always looking for the least little thing. Women don’t have the freedom of comment.”
The unreserved Ferraro showed plenty of pizzazz but little punch at the polls. Ferraro perhaps added two percent to Mondale’s vote tally, according to pollster Dotty Lynch. “The whole thing was a referendum on Reagan and Mondale,” says political consultant Hugh Schwartz. “Women were delighted that Ferraro was a candidate, but they didn’t feel that she was a reason to vote Democratic.”
The true measure of her impact, of course, lay elsewhere. She has changed forever the political future of women, though her own future remains uncertain. She will spend the next year traveling, lecturing and writing. (Literary agent Esther Newberg reportedly is seeking a $1 million advance from New York publishers for her memoirs.) “She needs this year and a half to collect herself, then I think she will go back to politics and do better than she’s done before,” says son John Jr., 20, a junior at Middlebury College. She may have an eye on the Senate seat of New York Republican Alfonse D’Amato, a Reagan ally who’s up for reelection in 1986. But given the rough-and-tumble of New York politics, she faces a battle for the Democratic nomination. A Manhattan grand jury is still investigating husband Zaccaro’s connection with two multimillion-dollar real-estate deals, and any indictment could seriously damage her political career.
This year she was defeated, but this year women conquered. In her first speech after the election, addressing a boisterously partisan crowd at the University of Wisconsin, an unbowed Ferraro said that Democrats have always “stood up for the idea that a nation is mightier when its people are freer. Belief in equal opportunity is the core of the Democratic party’s faith.” Despite the results of the 1984 election, she added, “The last thing we need is to trim our principles now. The last thing our country needs is two Republican parties.” What the country will get, this year made clear, is more Geraldine Ferraro.