Geraldine Ferraro: A smudged legacy

If Geraldine Ferraro fears that her recent comments on Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential candidacy might influence the way Americans remember her, she isn’t admitting it.

But like other politicians who have become known by a singular moment that played out in public, Ferraro’s legacy may now contain an endnote detailing her characterization of Obama’s political success as a lucky product of his race.

In interviews with The Hill by telephone and e-mail, Ferraro emphatically denied any concern over the prospect that her now-infamous remarks will cloud her reputation.  

In an e-mail, she was asked whether she felt her reputation has been harmed, whether she is concerned that people will remember her by the remarks she made, and whether she felt the need to clear her name.

“No, no and no,” she replied.

Unlike Ferraro, however, other politicians who have made show-stopping remarks in public have been haunted years later. Former Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean and Michael Dukakis and former GOP Sen. George Allen (Va.) are among them.  

The early consensus from experts is that Ferraro’s remarks will be woven into the narrative of the woman otherwise known for her historic 1984 run as the country’s first female vice presidential candidate from a major political party.

Many are quick to couch that projection, noting that Ferraro’s political career symbolized significant civic and social progress in America — an accomplishment they insist can’t be wiped out by a single comment.

They say it might be too early to tell precisely how her remark will come to bear on her legacy, explaining that the outcome of the Democratic presidential primary race could determine how that plays out.  

The controversy arose after Ferraro told the California newspaper The Daily Breeze, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, of any color, 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’s words set off a flood of punditry on the use of race in the presidential campaigns and, to a larger extent, race relations in America. She ultimately resigned from her volunteer position on the finance committee of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), a position, she insisted on clarifying, that she held “only because my law firm did an event for her” and not because “I’m looking for a job in the new administration.”

Ferraro stressed that, unlike Dean, Dukakis and Allen, the stakes for her weren’t high. Ferraro has long been out of political office and said she has no plans to re-enter the fray other than to continue to fundraise for Clinton.

The other three politicians, by contrast, all lost campaigns shortly after their defining moments, and many say they lost those races because of those moments.

Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and a former Massachusetts governor, had two such moments during his campaign: his cool “no” answer when asked during a debate whether he would favor capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered, and a picture of him popping out of a military tank wearing a helmet, smiling and pointing at the camera. His capital-punishment answer was construed as detached and insensitive, while the tank photo backfired by making him look clownish rather than experienced on defense.

Dukakis, who now teaches part-time at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he doesn’t have to address those incidents that often, noting that 20 years have passed.

Dukakis said Ferraro should be remembered for her spirited causes, such as cancer research, and added that he sympathizes with her.

“If you’ve been in politics as long as I have, as long as Gerry Ferraro has, things are going to happen,” he said.

As for himself, he does not worry whether he will be remembered for those two moments in his presidential bid.

“I don’t know if any of us go around consciously worried about our legacy,” Dukakis said. “What you’re really concerned about in the last analysis is, do people think you served honorably and well, and think you made a difference?”

A more recent example is former Vermont governor and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Dean, who is still known for the so-called “primal scream” he gave at a campaign rally after the Iowa caucuses. Many believed that incident doomed his primary run. And Allen, a former GOP governor and senator from Virginia, continues to be associated with his use of the racial slur “macaca” during his failed 2006 Senate reelection campaign.

Dean and Allen declined to be interviewed for this article.

Doug Wead, a political historian who worked in both the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, raises a question that Ferraro and other politicians are likely asking themselves.

“Is it fair?” he asks. “Probably not. There is much more to these people than these isolated comments, but sometimes the comments represent something bigger that the public is really troubled by, and so the comment becomes the catalyst.”

Wead thinks “the jury is still out” on how Ferraro’s comments will affect her legacy.

“If Obama should lose the nomination, then Ferraro’s comment will loom larger, and it will have a greater chance of being a part of her legacy,” he said in an e-mail.

One group sure to remember her comments is African-Americans.

“No matter how the media and the public move on from this story, the black community will remember it, just as evangelicals, gays, Jews or any other voter bloc would remember such comments made about them,” he said. “Evangelicals, for example, have never forgotten Linda Ronstadt’s comments about being sick to her stomach when she heard that there were evangelical Christian fans in her audience.”

Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau director, agreed with Wead. “Many people are very troubled by what she said, and I don’t believe they will forget it in the short run, quite frankly,” he said. But he added that someone with such “historical significance as Geraldine Ferraro” should not be assessed fully on one incident.  

Ferraro has more latitude to stand by her remarks without paying for it, given that she is not running for office. But her unyielding defense of those comments may keep her name associated with this presidential campaign’s race-based controversy in perpetuity, one expert said.

“That in particular got attention, that she was not going to back off too easily,” said Marie Danziger, director of the communications program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Danziger said Ferraro’s comments and subsequent defense tactics might not necessarily reflect poorly on her in the long run, noting that “this is the stuff our political history is made of, these little moments.”

Instead, they may be remembered as a reflection both of who she is as a person and the unprecedented doggedness that has characterized the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

“It’s so scrappy-New Yorker to stick to your guns like a dog that doesn’t want to give up its bone,” said Danziger, herself a New Yorker. “It fits her personality in a way, and will be remembered for a long time as one more illustration of the fighter she is.”