“In politics stupidity is not a handicap.”
By Bob Gaydos
The last time I saw Geraldine Ferraro, it was one of those hot, humid, mid-August afternoons when pressing the flesh and asking people to vote for you was not at the top of the list of favorite things to do for most politicians. It was at the Ulster County Fair and I had just reminisced my way through an hour of the current edition of the Drifters singing their collection of timeless hits and was in search of something cold to drink.
I turned a corner and there she was, standing virtually alone, the sun beating down on her, yet looking amazingly cool in her crisp, white, tailored blouse. Why wasn’t anyone talking to her, I wondered. Don’t they know who she is? She ran for vice president of the United States. She could have been -- should have been -- elected senator from New York six years ago.
It was 1998 and I was writing editorials for the Times Herald-Record and so I introduced myself to the Senate candidate. We shook hands, she smiled and politely said, oh yes, nice to see you again, Bob. I noticed she wasn’t quite the cool customer I had thought as she, too, had sweat beads on her forehead. We chatted briefly and I seem to recall an air of calm resignation about her, although how much of that is real and how much the product of history, I can’t be sure. At any rate, she answered my questions graciously and moved on as, eventually, some of the other fair-goers began to recognize her.
For all intents and purposes, Ferraro faded into political obscurity soon after that. She had started the campaign a heavy favorite to win, because of her name recognition, but was drubbed in the Democratic primary by then-Congressman Charles Schumer, a guy who knows how to work a county fair crowd and who had millions more than Ferraro to spend on his campaign. Schumer went on to become the ubiquitous Senator Chuck. Ferraro went on to a battle with cancer that lasted the rest of her life.
Ferraro died Saturday, at age 75, of a form of blood cancer. She was diagnosed with the disease in November 1998, shortly after the Senate campaign, but did not reveal her illness until more than two years later. She more than doubled the survival rate for her cancer, which may have had as much to do with her toughness as with the bone marrow transplant and drug therapies she received. During those years she became an energetic advocate for research and education on blood cancer as well as for opportunities for women in politics and in professional careers. In sum, the Italian-American daughter of Newburgh was well-deserving of the tributes paid to her as a pioneer for women’s equality.
Which brings me to that quote at the top of this column. No, it does not refer to Ferraro. She was feisty. (In 1984, when she was Walter Mondale’s running mate on the Democratic Party presidential ticket, she had this to say in answer to a question about her debate with George H.W. Bush: “I readily admit I was not an expert on foreign policy but I was knowledgeable and I didn't need a man who was the Vice President of the United States and my opponent turning around and putting me down.”) She was intelligent; she was well-informed and well-spoken; she was curious. She was, in sum, a serious political candidate.
But Napoleon, bless his egotistical little heart, was right. None of those attributes is necessary for success in politics.
Consider, as Rod Serling used to say, the curious case of Michelle Bachmann. She has been elected to Congress four times in Minnesota and is regularly mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012. You may have heard that, on a recent fund-raising visit to New Hampshire, Bachmann said, "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."
Uh huh. She is also famous for saying, “Death panels are the bureaucracies that President Obama is establishing where bureaucrats will make the decision on who gets health care and how much.'' The founder of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives also believes: “Carbon dioxide is natural, it is not harmful, it is a part of Earth’s lifecycle. And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance, reduce the American standard of living, to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in Earth.”
And what the heck, one more from Bachmann: ”I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”
The last Senate campaign also gave us Christine O’Donnell as a Tea Party Republican candidate in Delaware. O‘Donnell had perhaps the most intriguing campaign theme of all time: "I'm not a witch."
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Sharon Angle ran for the Senate as a Tea Party Republican offering this bit of political strategy: ''I hope that's not where we're going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.'' Sweet.
But of course, the godmother of Tea Party Republicans is Sarah (Half-term) Palin. Palin is to the Republican Party as Ferraro was to the Democrats. Sort of. Palin was the first female to run for vice president on the Republican ticket. She also could be described (in fact, insists on being described) as feisty. There, the similarities end. Entire web sites now exist devoted to the utterings of Palin: A small sampling:
- ''If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?'' (In her book, ''Going Rogue'')
- My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars. Never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”
- "Another big question that has to be answered, Greta, is are we at war? I haven't heard the president state that we're at war. That's why I too am not knowing -- do we use the term intervention? Do we use war? Do we use squirmish? What is it?" (On the U.S. and NATO bombing of Libya, March 29.)
- In New Delhi, India, on March 19, she was asked why the Republicans did not win in 2008. “I was not the top of the ticket,” was her reply.
Having thus thrown John McCain -- the man who made her career possible -- under the bus, Palin showed herself to be as capable of cutthroat politics as any man and, like Ferraro, a trailblazer for women in her own right. I can sense some female readers getting a bit restless about now, so let me offer one more Palinism: "Who hijacked term: 'feminist'? A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it's ironic (& passé)" (In a Twitter message, Aug. 18, 2010).
You may argue that Palin is not in Ferraro’s league as a qualified, well-informed, competent and coherent politician, and you would be right, but you cannot deny that Palin was the first woman to be part of a GOP presidential ticket. You can also not deny that being smart, serious and substantive were not always regarded as necessary in males who ran for the same office (just go back as far as Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew and I can’t help it if these are all Republicans).
No, Napoleon was on to something. You can be dumb and succeed in politics. Geraldine Ferraro may have blazed the trail, but thanks to Sarah, Michelle, et al, women in America have finally achieved political equality with men. I for one wish they had aimed a bit higher.