Geraldine Ferraro: A Break with Tradition

In need of a political lift, Mondale picks a woman running mate

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CAMPAIGN James Johnson kept his glacial blue eyes glued to the motel-room TV set, his mouth slightly open as if in wonder. Walter Mondale's campaign chairman had been in the state capitol in St. Paul earlier that day, of course, but he wanted to relive that poignant experience. He switched around among all three networks, nodding in silent approval as anchormen described Mondale's running-mate selection as historic and unprecedented. The phone broke into Johnson's reverie: it was his boss calling. Johnson told him the story had dominated the nightly news and the national reaction was enthusiastic beyond all their hopes. Hanging up, he observed: "Walter Mondale has never experienced a day like this before. People were actually crying. He has never had this kind of response, this same kind of excitement."

The excitement was justified: Mondale's choice had broken the mold of American politics. It transformed what had been as a dull campaign grinding to a predestined conclusion into a less predictable venture already assured a place in history, whatever its outcome. The odds are firmly against Geraldine Ferraro, 48, actually becoming the first woman to stand next in line of succession to the White House. Ronald Reagan will be a formidable campaign foe. But the point was, no one could be sure; a thousand calculations—the effect of a woman national candidate on the female vote, the male vote, the South, the West, urban blue-collar workers, Black and Hispanic voters—have to be done for the very first time. And assuredly not for the last time; those calculations enter into the making of every presidential election ticket from now on.

For Mondale, the naming of Ferraro offered a more immediate payoff: it virtually ensured an upbeat, if not totally unified, Democratic Convention in San Francisco this week. Gary Hart, who said only hours before it was offered to Ferraro, that he would accept the V.P. spot, lost what hope he had of winning over disaffected Mondale delegates. Jesse Jackson, the master political showman, had been upstaged; he will find it hard now to depict the Democratic Party as closed to outsiders. As for being possibly overshadowed by speakers like New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Edward Kennedy, Mondale could look forward instead to hearing their rhetorical gifts lavished on his selection of a running mate.

Mondale had not set out in cool calculation to make a choice that would imprint his name on the pages of American political-history books. Nor had the idea of selecting a woman hit him in a flash of inspiration. It had evolved, growing in fits and starts. Mondale's musing about the possibility began last fall when his vaunted political machine seemed on the verge of locking up the nomination almost before the primaries began. Hart's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary in February rudely suspended such thinking, which did not resume in earnest until May. Said one adviser: "We started thinking we had to consider a woman candidate, but not really expecting at that point that a woman would be chosen."

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