What We Learned the Hard Way

It's been 22 years since I became the first woman to run on a major-party ticket, and we're still asking whether a woman can be elected president. I don't think that's the right question. This isn't about just any woman. It's specific to Hillary Clinton, and we should be asking if she could do it.

If Hillary gets the nomination, she's going to be attacked. But she's been through all of this before. There's nothing left to throw at her. My husband, John, and I were just two kids from Queens. We weren't prepared for the scrutiny. When John didn't want to release our tax returns, I tried to make light of it. I said that's how Italian men are. Mario Cuomo chided me in public for that. He said it wasn't funny. I think if I were a male and my wife was in real estate, they wouldn't have looked at us so closely.

Hillary's been preparing for the presidency for years. I had the vice presidential nomination thrust upon me, and voters had to feel comfortable with me being one heartbeat away from becoming commander in chief. Gail Sheehy did a profile of me and asked me to name my biggest negative. I stupidly said I don't have a lot of foreign-policy experience. That came to haunt me. But that sort of thing is not going to happen to Hillary.

She is in a very different place. When I was running, a woman was quoted saying she couldn't vote for me. Asked why, she said she couldn't do the job, so how could I? I think Hillary can sell herself based upon how well she has done her job in the Senate. Everybody remembers how Barbara Bush, when asked what she thought of me, said, "It rhymes with rich." This was after I debated Vice President George H.W. Bush and an open microphone caught him bragging that he'd kicked a little ass. She was defending her husband. I think she looked at this like, "Who is this woman coming after my husband?"

Though I was qualified, I was not the most qualified Democrat to be vice president, but I did bring a first: gender balance to the ticket. Sure, we lost, but Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for president, opened the door for Jack Kennedy. And Fritz Mondale, when he decided it was time to bring down the MEN ONLY sign from the door of the White House, did the same thing for a potential woman candidate.

Barack Obama is enjoying the kind of golden moment most politicians can only dream about. Wherever he goes, crowds flock to see him. The press is in a swoon over the possibility that he might run for president, and reporters read volumes into his every word and gesture. And they should. He is that rare politician who combines intellectual depth with a common touch. And just as important, his timing is good. I believe that if Obama does run, he could inspire Americans finally to look past race and elect an African-American to the Oval Office.

It won't be easy to do that. But in some respects, Obama already walks an easier path than I did when I sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. I was constantly fighting to get around a political structure that was courteous but that was closed off to me. (Sometimes it wasn't even courteous. I received so many death threats that the Secret Service had me wear a bulletproof vest everywhere I went.) I won a lot of press attention, but not always because my ideas were being taken seriously. Some couldn't see past the novelty of an African-American running for president. We were a poor campaign, but with a rich message. I talked about issues the other candidates didn't: comprehensive health care, urban poverty, Middle East peace and freeing Nelson Mandela when he was being called a terrorist.

Eventually, people began to listen. Big crowds would come to see me and the audiences would leave saying, "He can speak!" In 1984, I won five primaries. When I ran again in 1988, I swept 11 primaries. Reporters who once ignored me started typing the words "possible front runner" next to my name. I wasn't being ignored anymore. But even so, it wasn't uncommon for voters to come up to me in Iowa or New Hampshire and tell me they liked what I had to say, but that they weren't "ready" for a black president. These are the same kind of doubts Barack Obama--and, in a different way, Hillary Clinton--will face. I'd like to think that we're more mature as a nation now. But look at comedian Michael Richards's outburst. Look at the campaign ads smearing Harold Ford Jr. by suggesting he was involved with a white woman. I liken my campaigns to swimming upriver. It's possible to do it, but the undercurrents--often unseen--can drag you under. For Obama, the undercurrent will be more subtle, but it will be there.