On one of the last flights of Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, just before the Democratic nominee returned to Minnesota to receive the devastating election results, his press staff distributed T-shirts to reporters.
“Mondale Traveling Press,” they read on one side. “Eyewitness to History,” said the other.
We were on our way to witness one of U.S. history’s biggest political landslides, as Ronald Reagan rolled to a 49-state victory over the hapless Fritz. But we knew what the slogan meant.
None of us lucky enough to have been there will forget the sight of Geraldine Ferraro, clad in suffragette white, as she took the Democratic convention podium to accept her nomination as the first woman to sit atop a major political party’s national ticket. It was a vision that allowed the nation to begin contemplating the possibility of someone who was not a white male in the nation’s highest office.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Beneficiaries of Ferraro’s legacy, from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin, joined Saturday in paying tribute to the woman who, improbably enough, managed to launch her trailblazing career from the same neighborhood that inspired Archie Bunker, the iconic bigot from the 1970s show All in the Family.
They did so despite the fact that Ferraro’s story stopped short of fairy tale triumph. The spunky bottle-blonde from Queens was a harbinger not only of the opportunities but of the hazards awaiting women politicians who would follow in her footsteps.
Long before Nancy Pelosi, Ferraro showed how women could leverage traditional feminine accomplishments into political ones. She used her background as a Catholic ethnic mom from Queens to charm and put at ease political old-timers like then-Speaker Tip O’Neill, and convince them to give her a chance. Then she demonstrated she had the moxie to run with it.
Ferraro also provided an early, classic example of the ju-jitsu that enables women politicians to overcome incautious male opponents. George H.W. Bush’s awkward attempt at macho, when he bragged about having “kicked a little a--” in his first debate with Ferraro, backfired big time. It was a lesson Rick Lazio might have done well to remember before swaggering over to Hillary Clinton in the midst of a New York Senate debate -- a moment that seemed to seal her historic triumph as the first president’s wife to win elective office in her own right.
On the other hand, the controversy over the business dealings of Ferraro’s husband, John Zaccaro -- who later pleaded guilty to real estate fraud -- stalled any momentum the Mondale campaign picked up as the result of her nomination. And it foreshadowed the difficulties being faced today by Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat struggling to keep her reelection bid from being swamped by controversy over spousal business arrangements.
In the end, what’s memorable about Ferraro is not the fact that she fell short, but the fact that she helped open a door. When she first entered Congress in 1979, Ferraro was one of 18 women members -- 16 in the House and two in the Senate. Today, there are 91-- 17 in the Senate; 71 in the House and three delegates.
One third of the Supreme Court are women; a woman has served as speaker of the House; Hillary Clinton has run for president and now serves as secretary of state. And among the potential Republican candidates for president in 2012 are two women.
In Portland, Ore., on the 1984 campaign trail, I remember standing in a torrential downpour with thousands of people. Through the rain and the boredom of dozens of preliminary speakers, they all waited patiently to hear Ferraro, the newly anointed vice presidential candidate. They understood the history that was being made and didn’t want to miss it.
As Ferraro said, on the eve of her nomination to the ticket, as speculation swirled that Mondale might shatter precedent with his pick: “People are no longer hiding behind their hands and giggling when they talk about a woman for national office, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Follow Kathy Kiely on Twitter at @kathykiely.