The Ferraro Magic


It took three tries before the crowd would quiet down and she could complete her first, historic sentence. "Ladies and gentlemen of the convention . . . my name is Geraldine Ferraro." The effect was electric, inside the Moscone Center and all across the nation. Women of widely divergent backgrounds and persuasions -- and many men as well -- beamed, bawled and cheered aloud ("Gerry! Gerry!") as the first woman ever nominated for vice president by a major U.S. political party accepted the honor with a powerful and plain-spoken grace. "By choosing a woman to run for our nation's second highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans," Ferraro said. "If we can do this, we can do anything."

Even through the cool medium of television, Ferraro's speech was clearly an emotional high point of last week's Democratic convention -- and a vivid demonstration of the excitement that Walter Mondale and his advisers hope she will bring to the ticket. The speech also capped Ferraro's first week of political testing as a major party candidate, a week in which she handled the public, press and fellow politicians confidently despite unprecedented scrutiny on everything from her family's finances to her campaign body language. "She comes across in a human way that is unique," said Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt after Ferraro spoke to a breakfast gathering of Southern governors and party officials in San Francisco. "She can put this campaign on a people's level." All week long, indeed, the candidate herself pushed the family theme. "We have been pre-empted on this issue, as if Democrats are not family people," she told NEWSWEEK. Our values are middle-class values, and those are voters we lost in the last election . . . Now is the time for us to reclaim that constituency."

Days before the formalities of nomination and acceptance, Ferraro was working hard to get in step with the Mondale campaign. At his Lake Tahoe retreat last week she received two black looseleaf books on Mondale positions and held briefing sessions on the back porch of her cottage (once, she excused herself to put laundry in the dryer). Ferraro was particularly interested in discussing aid to Central America because she had traveled there recently (both halves of the ticket believe such support should be conditioned on human-rights progress). "She was already well versed in a full range of issues," said Mondale aide Bernard Aronson, who advised Ferraro during the convention. She also inherited Mondale speechwriter Ross Brown and one of Mondale's assistant press secretaries, Scott Widmeyer, to beef up her own half-dozen top staffers.

Was the "Mondalization" of Ferraro already under way? Not at all, campaign aides insisted. And Mondale himself made the same pledge to Ferraro, NEWSWEEK learned. "We don't want to change you. If you feel pressure, resist," he told his running mate -- a symbol, Mondale says, of both the party's new frontiers and the bedrock family values that prompted Ferraro to take time out last week for a private celebration of her 24th wedding anniversary. Some Mondale aides do worry about her quick tongue (questioning Reagan's religion) and limited policy background, but they count on her quickness and savvy to compensate. "Anyway," said staffer Aronson, "she started her career running against party bosses, and she's not going to knuckle under to any would-be bosses."

'Spark': Besides, many of the bosses seem to like Ferraro as is. "Gerry has given us the spark we needed," said her principal patron, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill. "She'll speak up to Mondale." If Mondale himself felt threatened by that prospect, or by speculations that Ferraro may often outshine him, he hid it well -- kidding her at one point that he, too, hoped to make the covers of both major news magazines in the same week. "He doesn't have an ego that needs to be fulfilled all the time," said one Mondale aide. Sensitive to new political proprieties, the nominee and his team quickly developed an etiquette for running mates of opposite sexes. They do not kiss, hug or evenjoin hands in the classic raised-arm political salute. "I never kissed Jimmy Carter," jokes Mondale.

Ferraro's finesse came through in a series of political stops last week -- including a mission from the Mondale trailer to woo wavering delegates and a solo appearance at the crowded breakfast with Southern officials. "If somebody does something good for me, I don't forget it . . . We all come from the same kind of background," she said. "She disarmed them by being so honest -- she made them understand she was just like them," reported Congressman Gephardt. Louisiana state chairman Jesse Bankston was one of many quick to indicate approval. "I am a conservative white man from the South, and I want to get her into Louisiana as much as we can," he said. Accordingly, Mondale's men planned to exploit Ferraro's appeal far beyond safe Northeast and liberal enclaves. "I can't wait to send her to Norma Rae country," said one Mondale strategist. "We're going to send her into the lion's den," said another.

Lions: If the response she drew at Moscone was any example, Ferraro will tame most of the lions she confronts. After slogging through a half-dozen drafts, slowing her normal express-train delivery and slipping into the deserted hall the night before to practice with the TelePrompTer, the woman who would be veep was almost letter perfect. Her worst gaffe, a presumably Freudian slip: "Tonight, the daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for president in the new land my father came to love." As her audience wept and cheered, Ferraro stressed hometown virtues -- pride in work, love of country, obedience to the law -- and delivered a ringing indictment of Reagan policies. "Tonight we reclaim our dream," she declared. "To all the children of America, I say: the generation before ours kept faith with us, and like them, we will pass on to you a stronger, more just America."

For delegate Ann Richards, state treasurer of Texas and a veteran politician, it was a moment that defied definition. "Sometimes emotion speaks better than logic," she said. And from a back row near the alternates' gallery, Ohio pol Tim Hagan listened to the speech with tears streaming down his face. "It is a statement, a breakthrough and a liberation for all of us," said Hagan, who is half Italian -- with seven sisters. "I hope the realization of this dream helps us win the election. But we have changed America here, and that may be enough."