Talking politics is, in some ways, like talking baseball. You talk about the history, the lore, the stats, the trivia. And you remember when barriers are broken.
So, just as Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the first African-American to break into the major leagues, you know that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president. Douglas Wilder of Virginia was the first black to be elected governor. And Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman named to a major-party presidential ticket.
Ferraro, picked in 1984 by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to be his running mate, died Saturday at age 75. The former three-term House member from Queens, New York, had long been suffering from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.
Saying that barriers have been broken does not mean that roadblocks are gone. Barack Obama's election as president in 2008 hardly means that racism has disappeared from the American scene. And while Ferraro's ascension to the ticket in 1984 (duplicated 24 years later by Republican Sarah Palin), as well as Hillary Clinton's strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, indicated a sea change for the political success of women, evidence of sexism still permeates political discourse.
But everybody who remembers the announcement made that summer day in 1984 immediately knew its significance. And it happened less than six years after she broke into electoral politics.
Geraldine Ferraro was an assistant district attorney in the borough of Queens when she decided to run for an open congressional seat in 1978. She had far less experience than the other Democrats who sought the nomination, but her Italian background and her familiar name — her cousin, Nicholas Ferraro, was the Queens D.A. — boosted her in both the primary and the general election. A strong advocate of abortion rights, she became an influential member of the House early in her career; in 1981, she joined her party's leadership as secretary of the Democratic Caucus.
In the spring of 1984, she attained national prominence as chair of the Democratic Party platform committee. On July 12, Mondale made his historic announcement in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Some were dubious about the move, attributing it to Mondale's desire to "pander to pressure groups." Others were ecstatic. It's a "dream come true," effused Stephanie Solien of the Women's Campaign Fund. Gloria Steinem, a leading feminist, dismissed the doubters: "Half the human race is not a special interest." Ferraro, who liked to describe herself as a "Queens housewife," understood the importance:
"American history is about doors being opened, doors of opportunity for everyone no matter who you are, as long as you're willing to earn it."
The mood at the party convention four days later was electric from the start. To this day, I remember the tears of joy in the eyes of women everywhere in the hall at San Francisco's Moscone Center. But the euphoria did not last long; questions about the financial transactions of her husband, real estate attorney John Zaccaro, dominated the news for weeks. In the end, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost 49 out of 50 states to the Republican ticket of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush.
Ultimately, having Ferraro on the ticket made little difference in the 1984 results. But it was clear that something important had transpired that day when Mondale made his historic selection.
Ferraro never attained high office again. In 1992 and again in 1998, she lost Democratic primaries in her bid to face GOP Sen. Al D'Amato. She appeared in a much-ridiculed commercial for Diet Pepsi.
In March 2008, she resigned from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, where she was part of the finance effort, when she in effect said that Barack Obama was doing very well in the primaries because he was black:
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Ferraro accused her critics of a double standard on race:
"Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this [Obama] campaign down and says let's address reality and the problems we're facing in this world, you're accused of being racist, so you have to shut up," she told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif. "Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?"