Although 2008 was the year when America demonstrated that presidential politics was accessible to African-Americans and women, it was the 1984 campaign when the doors were first pushed open. And the two people most responsible for the change were Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Their campaign is most often recalled for the magnitude of their electoral defeat yet an enduring part of its legacy was its commitment to the principle that presidential politics was not simply a preserve of white males.
Prior to 1984, the pool of candidates for national tickets consisted entirely of white men. Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm had conducted largely symbolic presidential candidacies and Gerald Ford had considered choosing Anne Armstrong as his 1976 running mate before deciding the gamble was too great. But women and minorities were not really viewed as serious contenders.
That changed in 1984. Mondale's career was identified with opening doors to excluded groups and characteristically he insisted that his vice-presidential selection process include women and minorities. Those he seriously considered included two African-Americans, Mayors Tom Bradley and Wilson Goode, three women, Ferraro, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Governor Martha Collins, and one Hispanic, Mayor Henry Cisneros among others. Since Mondale decided to imitate the process by which Jimmy Carter had chosen him eight years earlier, those being considered were announced in advance and appeared for publicized interviews.
Mondale was criticized in some circles for pandering to interest groups or for considering those who lacked the credentials of recent vice-presidential candidates. But Mondale recognized that structural features of American politics meant that there were no blacks or women or Hispanics with the usual vice-presidential resumes. Limiting the search to Senators, Governors and Cabinet officers would perpetuate the discrimination and ignore the claims of meritorious figures. The critical mass of unconventional candidates made clear that Mondale was not engaged in tokenism but was serious about the door-opening project. The transparency of the process encouraged Americans for the first time to think about members of these politically marginalized groups as national candidates.
Ferraro and some close associates had initially seen a vice-presidential boomlet as a means to enhance her stature for a possible Senate race in the future. Yet as the Democratic convention approached the possibility that Mondale would choose a woman running mate rose. Such a move was consistent with his principles and the challenge of running against an increasingly popular President Ronald Reagan made some dramatic move to reconfigure the political landscape seem necessary. Although Ferraro was completing only her third term in the House of Representatives, she had impressed party leaders and political observers as a rising star in the party and had capably discharged important assignments, including as chair of the party's platform committee.
Mondale's announcement that Ferraro would be his running mate on July 12, 1984 energized his campaign and symbolized its theme. "America is for everyone who works hard and contributes to our blessed country," he said. "American history is about doors being opened, doors of opportunity no matter who you are," she echoed. A week later, she began her acceptance speech by proclaiming that "America is a land where dreams can come true for all of us."
Yet that idealism soon was obscured in the nasty reality of national campaigns. Republicans and the media began an assault on Ferraro which was largely focused on her husband's business dealings. For the first time, the finances of a spouse of a national candidate became a public fixation. Some thought the allegations against Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, reflected pernicious anti-Italian stereotypes.
Ferraro answered the allegations in a grueling two hour press conference on August 21, 1984. It was a political rope-a-dope performance in which Ferraro remained as long as reporters had any questions and acquitted herself well in the marathon session.
The other most prominent moment of Ferraro's historic campaign came in her debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush on October 11, 1984. Ferraro was generally seen as having held her own although post-debate polls declared Bush the winner. She owned the debate's most dramatic moments, when she upbraided Bush for "patronizing" her and when she told a questioner that she did not have to have "fought in a war in order to love peace."
For the next quarter century, no woman or member of a racial minority came close to claiming a spot on a national ticket. Rev. Jesse Jackson ran a distant second to Michael Dukakis in 1988 but never was a serious prospect for his ticket. Elizabeth Dole was mentioned as a possible Bush running mate that year but was not among those most seriously considered. Colin Powell might have been chosen some year but always disclaimed interest. Not until 2008 did minorities and women emerge as leading figures in presidential politics.
Yet it was in 1984 that Mondale first acted upon the ideal that a woman (or a minority) could hold national elected office and it was then that Ferraro showed herself a plausible candidate in her pioneering role. They lost the election but changed history.