Rookie of the Year

by Morton Kondracke | November 5, 1984

Vice Presidential debates are a sideshow, at best, to the main action of a Presidential election, but the pressures on George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro going into their October 11 meeting in Philadelphia nonetheless were enormous. After President Reagan's disastrous debate with Walter Mondale, Bush had to perform more than creditably. It was up to him to defend the Reagan record, undercut the Democratic case, and project some vision of the next four years in a way that Reagan did not. Moreover, this was Bush's opportunity to show Republican voters that he is their strongest potential leader for the post-Reagan era. He could not afford to lose this debate to a woman, and yet he could not appear mean and unchivalrous either.

On the other side, Ferraro had to demonstrate that she is more than just a three-term U.S. Representative from Queens, that she is a person qualified to be Vice President of the United States and, if it came to it, President. She had to show herself knowledgeable about the full range of domestic and foreign policy issues that Bush has been intimately involved with tor years. She had to seem tough enough to negotiate with the Soviet Union, but not brassy. In short, she had to convince America that a woman can be President.

Who was under the greater burden? It's hard to say. But it seems to me that how the two candidates handled the pressure is at least as important in the long run as who the public thinks "won" the debate. What happened was another role reversal like the one that occurred in the Presidential debate, when Mondale the statistician traded places with Reagan the visionary. In the Bush-Ferraro meeting, the super-credentialed Brahmin Yalie behaved like a frightened oaf, while the Italian-American ex-housewife displayed calm, breeding, and self-possession. Under pressure, Bush became a laughable sycophant toward the President, blurted out weirdly inappropriate interjections ("Let's talk about the World Series"), and resorted repeatedly to Nixonesque misrepresentations of Democratic positions, of which the worst was the allegation that Mondale and Ferraro had said that U.S. Marines killed in Lebanon had "die in shame." Before the debate. Bush's press secretary called Ferraro "bitchy," and Bush's wife called her an "I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich," During the debate. Bush patronized Ferraro and got appropriately spanked for it on national television. After the debate, Bush joshed with a longshoreman's union official that he had "tried to kick a little ass last night." The entire performance demonstrated an utter lack of self-confidence and gravitas, the seriousness of spirit that one expects in a national leader.


This is not to say that Geraldine Ferarro decisively demonstrated that she is qualified to be President. There is still a touch of Eliza Doolittle in Ferraro. Her measured speech—by George, I think she's got it!—was the product of practice and discipline; it is not yet second nature. When asked by Robert Boyd of Knight-Ridder newspapers about her lack of experience in military affairs, she got excessively testy, demanding to know, "Are you saying I would have to have fought in a war in order to know peace?" When Boyd obviously was asking about her qualifications to be commander in chief, and about the possibility that the Soviets would take advantage to her because she is a woman.

Some day, one hopes, such questions will not have to be asked in America because we will have had the kind of experience with strong women leaders that Britain, Israel, and India have had. Ferraro ultimately gave the right sort of answer to Boyd's question, although there was an interesting slip in it. She said, "if the Soviet Union were to ever believe that they could challenge the United States with any sort of nuclear forces or otherwise, if I were in a position of  leadership in this  country, they would be assured that they would be met with swift, concise, and certain retaliation." Concise is not a fighting word, but a talking word, suggesting that deep down inside her, Ferraro thinks she can respond to nuclear blackmail with a verbal put-down. Like Hush's little-noticed reference to civil rights as "civil race," Ferraro's slip was minor but meaningful; and it was of a piece with the rest of her foreign policy views. Walter Mondale has indicated that, knowing what he knows now about tho danger to U.S. students in Grenada, he would have authorized an invasion of the island just as President Reagan did. Ferraro cannot bring herself to say the same, even to support Mondale. "If the students were really in danger," she told me in an interview, "I think we could have found some way to negotiate their safety." She went on to criticize tho Reagan Administration for failing to negotiate over a period of years with the Marxist government of Grenada, neglecting the fact that this government had been violently overthrown by the time of the invasion.

Her answers to questions on Central America also suggest that she abhors military action so profoundly that she needs to find American policy constantly in the wrong. She said that in El Salvador, the United States "is not pushing the head of government to move toward correction of ... human rights problems," when the United States in fact helped elect a Salvadoran President who is doing just that. She hinted she believes that Nicaragua's November 4 elections will be fair—when they clearly will be nothing of the kind—and said that the United States should work for a solution to Central America's problems by "pressuring the neighboring countries of Honduras, of Costa Rica, and of El Salvador to promote the kinds of society that we can all live with."

Ferraro's foreign policy fits a stereotype—or perhaps archetype—of womanliness. It is forgiving, nurturing, and mediating, rather than forceful, assertive, and dynamic. And yet there is a feisty, don't-tread-on-me quality to Ferraro that suggests that if she actually understood the grim reality of how Marxist-Leninist males behave in this world, she would eventually act more like Golda Meir than George McGovern. Ferraro is not a wimp. In a Chicago suburb the other day, she was introduced by Representative Daniel Rostenkowski, who once had rejected her for a place on the powerful House Ways and Means Comittee that he chairs. Before a throng of Rostenkowski's fellow Polish-Americans, she thanked him and said, with a cut, "I knew I'd won the debate when Danny Rostenkowski canceled his golf game to be with me today." After a respite, Ferraro is again being heckled by anti-abortion demonstrators. At one event near Chicago, she shut them up with a promise to meet with them after her rally; at another, she silenced them with a lecture on the constitutional right to free speech.

Ferraro's aides say that she is very much a woman in her personal relationships. They say she attaches importance to their family obligations--and her own--as well as to the political task at hand. She joshes with staff members she trusts and criticizes bad performance. But she never screams or demeans incompetents; she merely replaces them. She is also a feminist who refers often to her role as a pioneer in politics representing the aspirations of all American women. In some closed-door meetings with women, she reportedly has evoked and identified with heartfelt expressions of emotion--frustration at the refusal of male society to grant equal opportunity to women, and joy at the turn toward full justice that her nomination represents.

 

At the same time, in Congress, Ferraro has advanced very much as one of the boys, playing politics the traditional way. A scholar who has watched her progress closely says, “She's an old-style pol who believes in the values of working hard, respecting the leadership and the system, being expert at something, and being a team player rather than a media standout. She is a principled liberal, though she has a strong sense of representing her district, as on tuition tax credits and busing.”

Some other Democrats who have watched her consider her "little better than a party hack" who achieved her position by currying favor with Speaker O'Neill and capitalizing on pressure from the women's movement on Mondale to get herself nominated for Vice President. One such critic said, "The rap on Ronald Reagan is his showmanship, but that's fair comment on her, too. She's being judged favorably on her performance on the campaign trail, on how she reads a speech written by others and turns on a crowd. Because she's a woman, people don't want to hold her to a higher standard than this, but the fact is she is only a three-term Congresswoman with no distinguished record on issues and no demonstrations of leadership." Some critics argue, too, that she has been posing as a middle class daughter of immigrants when in fact she is wealthy, employs a full-time uniformed black maid named Ernestine, and owns a boat and vacation homes on Fire Island and in the Virgin Islands. The fact that Ferraro's immediate family's net worth exceeds that of George Bush may have had more to do with Mrs. Bush's outburst against Ferraro ("rhymes with rich") than any actual behavior of the Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee.

The criticisms have some validity, but Ferraro remains an estimable political force, a real find for the Democratic Party. She is charismatic, cool and, apparently, very smart. According to her press secretary, Francis O'Brien, nine days before her now-legendary two-hour press conference on her family finances August 21, she understood only about 40 percent of the details she had to master to carry off that make-or-break defense of her honesty. "After that," he says, "I was never worried about her learning what she had to know for the debate with Bush. She is the fastest learner I have ever met in my life."

It's true that if Ferraro were not a woman, she would not-as a third term representative-be running for Vice President. But then, if she were a man, given her brains and natural political instincts, she might well have moved further along in politics at an earlier age. Her intelligence is not of the reflective sort; she will never be a philosopher queen. A Democrat who has worked with her said, "What she wants to know from you is the correct political answer. 'There's a gap in my knowledge; fill it,' she says. She is not naturally inquisitive or interested in information for its own sake." It's claimed on her behalf that she is qualified to be Vice President or President on the basis of her experience with issues as chairman of the Democratic Platform Committee, but in fact she dealt very little with the substance of the platform and spent most of her time presiding over hearings, while representatives of candidates Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson made the compromises and worked out the language of the platform. One who was there says that "she did a terrible job of trying to explain the platform to Mondale" at their first meeting at his home in Minnesota prior to the convention. "She wasn't on top of the material. She didn't know the details. She had to keep deferring to staff to explain things and she was nervous. It was after that meeting that the reports came out the Mondale was unimpressed with her. Their second meeting was better."

 

Ferraro has demonstrated both courage and an ability to conceptualize during her conflict with the Roman Catholic Church over abortion, arguing that as a public official she has an obligation to represent all of her constituents, not just Catholics. But she displayed a lack of both historical and political sense in pledging that is she faced excommunication over an issue of public policy, she would resign her office rather than fight the church. It's highly unlikely that such a crises would ever arise, but Ferraro implies that if she became President the Pop would have the power to unseat her. In 1960 John F. Kennedy firmly asserted that the church would have no authority over an American Catholic President. At a minimum, Ferraro has potentially re-opened a divisive religious issue in America. At worst, it suggests she does not grasp what national sovereignty and independence are all about.

Ferraro's debate performance showed she can absorb volumes of issue material and back it with facility and self-assurance in what amounts to an oral examination with 50 million nonexperts in attendance. The ability to pass such a pressure test does not mean that she is qualified to be President, although failing it as miserably as George Bush did out to raise questions about his ability to stand up in a real crisis. Ferraro still has a lot to learn to be President, but the chances are she will not have to President anytime soon. Even if the Democrats win the election, which still doesn't seem likely, Mondale is young enough and healthy enough that Ferraro would have a first-rate White House education before having to think about actually governing. The more likely scenario for Ferraro is a 1986 shot at the seat occupied by New York's junior Senator, Alfonse d'Amato, or a straight tun for the Presidency in 1988. This year, she has arrived in the big leagues. She is the Jackie Robinson of American politics, and though a rookie, she is proving she can play.  

This article originally ran in the November 5, 1984 issue of the magazine.

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