Last week, I read a number of obituaries for Geraldine Ferraro, who died on March 26 after a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma. When Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, selected her, Ferraro became the first woman, and first Italian American, to run for national office on a major party ticket.
At the time, some political observers argued that Mondale’s choice of his vice presidential candidate was calculated to invigorate his own floundering campaign to unseat a popular President Ronald Reagan. Others said he had succumbed to the demands of women’s groups that he designate a female running mate.
But the vice presidential nominee—who never denied that her sex was the essential factor—had a fairly compelling biography. A working class gal, reared by a single widowed mother, Ferraro worked as a grade school teacher while attending night law school (as one of only two women in her class). After admission to the bar, she did pro bono legal work, served as a county prosecutor, raised a family, and served three terms representing her Queens, New York district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Though at the time of her selection, some considered her a lightweight, at least in the realm of foreign affairs, Ferraro was no pushover. And while her family finances came under inordinate scrutiny and she was patronized by then Vice President George H. W. Bush (whom she ably debated) Ferraro consistently demonstrated her commitment to preparing herself for the rigors of the campaign and for the office to which she aspired.
Fast-forward 24 years. The “maverick” Republican presidential nominee, trailing in the polls, names a little-known female governor of Alaska as his running mate. In contrast to the 1984 vice presidential candidate who paved the way for women in national politics, Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, proved not only woefully inexperienced to assume the vice-presidency (she had less than two years of experience in the statehouse) but also fundamentally lacking in the knowledge necessary for the job.
As she fumbled along the campaign trail, we learned that the vice presidential candidate read no mainstream newspapers or magazines, had never traveled outside the U.S., and had no foreign policy bona fides (other than being governor of a state with apparent startling proximity to Russia).
During the campaign, I recalled a conversation I had six months earlier with my grandmother, shortly after she had cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton in the New York presidential primary. Disappointed at the looming prospect that her candidate would lose the Democratic nomination, my grandmother described how excited she had been to vote for Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 election and how much she had looked forward to voting for Hillary in the upcoming election.
I had also supported Hillary, whose expansive knowledge, policy-wonk image, and sheer grit I found inspiring. However, by the fall of 2008, with the excitement of Hillary’s campaign gone and Barack Obama’s election looking likely, Tina Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” impersonations of the would-be vice president became the highlight of the remaining campaign season.
Of course, after the election, Sarah Palin proved to be a caricature of herself. Her own handlers bemoaned her lack of discipline and indifference to their attempts to prepare her for the campaign. She resigned the governorship to write a lucrative book, make a mint as a FOX news analyst, and star in a reality cable TV show. Her resignation was followed by her advisors’ confessions that she never liked the job of running the state in the first place. In the 2010 midterms, Palin literally targeted vulnerable Democrats and subsequently argued that she was the victim of blood libel when critics charged that her rhetoric had contributed to the Arizona shooting rampage in which Rep. Gabby Gifford was wounded.
Palin’s recent trip to Israel, Ireland, and Italy was seen by some as pandering to the electorate and an indicator of her intention to run for the presidency in 2012. But even if we’re spared a Palin run, it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll have her kindred spirit, Michele Bachmann, darling of the Tea Party, to provide fodder for the late night comedians.
Bachmann has demonstrated a knowledge bank and creative impulse that rival those of Palin. A “birther” who charges that Obama does not love this country, Bachmann has praised the founding fathers for ending slavery in the U.S. and hailed the origins of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord…New Hampshire. She has also revealed that she found it “interesting” that there was a swine flu epidemic when another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, was in the White House.
All of this might be funny—if it weren’t so downright scary. Thankfully, most of this nation’s leaders have eschewed ignorance, as has the electorate that catapulted them to power. But for Bachmann and Palin, ignorance is bliss—a self-inflicted state in which they take pride.
At a time when we should be paying homage to Geraldine Ferraro for the barrier she broke a generation ago, I have been wondering, are Palin and Bachmann all that Republican womankind has to offer? Then I look at the men campaigning for the same chance to unseat Barack Obama in 2012. For the most part, they’re just as much of an embarrassment as their female counterparts.
Alexandra Ozols is a member of the Class of 2014