Saturday, March 26, 2011


I didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008, but I understood what many of his young supporters were feeling.

I understood it quite well. It was the enthusiastic fervor that comes with being on the same side as a trailblazer, a pioneer, and that is a feeling that, I truly believe, every generation in America should experience at least once — because it is really the essence of what it means to be an American.

America has always been about pioneers — the pioneers who braved the ocean and the unknown to come to this continent centuries ago, the pioneers who explored and charted it, the pioneers who took their search for answers into space.

Obama was a pioneer, the first black to be nominated by a major party for president or vice president. Whatever history ultimately says about the successes or failures of his presidency, he will always be the first black nominee, the one who made it possible for others to follow.

In 1984, then–Rep. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated for a spot on a major party's national ticket, and I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Democratic ticket that year.

Ferraro's death today at the age of 75 has brought back a lot of memories of that time for me.

I guess my experience in 1984 more closely mirrored the experience of Republicans in 2008, though, because, as you undoubtedly recall, the Republicans nominated then–Gov. Sarah Palin to be their first female vice presidential candidate.

(In fact, I observed in 2009 that the parties' first female vice presidential nominees had lived parallel lives since their historic campaigns.)

Like the Democrats in 1984, the Republicans went down to defeat in 2008 — so that year I did not have the experience of supporting a barrier–breaking nominee who was successful in the general election.

Well, that may not be entirely true. I wasn't old enough to vote in 1976, but I supported Jimmy Carter, who was — I was told at the time — the first president elected from the Deep South in more than 100 years.

Carter was kind of a pioneer in that sense — although, frankly, I always had my misgivings about that. Lyndon Johnson was from Texas, which I always considered a Southern state (if not a Deep Southern state), and Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas, although he grew up in Kansas. Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, but he spent his adult life in New Jersey.

As a product of the South, I felt a great deal of pride in seeing a fellow Southerner elected president — even though he wasn't the first.

Then, in 1984, I really did get to support a political trailblazer, and, when I think of that time, I have to conclude that I was more carried away with the symbolic nature of Ferraro's nomination than her relevant experience.

It was, frankly, comparable to the experience levels that Obama and Palin brought to their tickets in 2008. Far from impressive.

I don't remember giving much thought to Ferraro's experience level at the time. I was influenced by other things, and one certainly was the historic symbolism of her candidacy.

I never really thought the ticket had a chance to win — and I was living in Arkansas, where the numbers were running pretty heavily against the Democrats (on the national level, anyway). It was hard for someone supporting the Democratic ticket there to get much of a sense that victory was really possible.

A few weeks before the election, Ferraro came to speak in Little Rock. I'm still not sure why she came to Arkansas, what she hoped to gain, but I went to hear her speak with some friends of mine, Mike and Jane, anyway.

About five or six months later, the three of us went to Dallas to see Eric Clapton in concert. The atmospheres at both events were just about the same.

In 1984, a Geraldine Ferraro event was like a rock concert without the music, just the star on stage. She would stand up there and wave, and folks would shriek and holler like they did at the Beatles shows 20 years earlier.

I clearly remember that day. It was a kind of drizzly October morning. I was working nights at the time. Can't recall if the event was on a day that I had off anyway or if it was just an ordinary weekday morning, but it really doesn't matter, I suppose. In those days, I was always off duty in the morning.

Nor does it really matter why Mike and Jane also were able to attend that event on a weekday. The fact remains, the three of us went to see "Gerry" — as her supporters tended to call her affectionately — and my memory is that the place was packed.

And everyone cheered wildly at anything she said. She could have been reading to us from the classified ads in the morning paper, and it wouldn't have mattered.

Personally, with my lifelong interest in history, I was just pleased to experience this brush with history. I have no specific memory of anything she said.

(It was doubly historic, in fact, as I recall. Then–Gov. Bill Clinton attended that rally. He was always a vocal supporter of the Mondale–Ferraro ticket, even though the voters in Arkansas were not as enthusiastic about the ticket as he was.)

I'm sure she spoke critically of Ronald Reagan and his record in the White House. That's one of the main jobs of a vice presidential candidate. But even when she was critical in that campaign, Ferraro was dignified and respectful. She was often subjected to indignities by the opposition, but she never repaid them in kind.

1984 was groundbreaking in another way. It is the first campaign that I can remember that utilized popular music from the politically charged 1960s in its advertising.

That reminds me of the closing days of that campaign. It was truly a memorable time for me.

Even though it was early November, my memory is that it was unseasonably mild, and my friend Sheila and I decided to do our own form of "campaigning" for Mondale–Ferraro.

The evening before the election, we decided to just go out driving in Little Rock. I had some Mondale stickers on the back of my car, and we thought — naively — that we might drum up some support for Mondale by just cruising around and letting the other cars see the stickers.

What the heck? Gas wasn't too expensive in those days — at least not compared to what we pay today — and my car got good mileage. But there was simply no way that I was going to sway enough voters to my side to change anything in Pulaski County, let alone the state of Arkansas, through mere exposure to the bumper stickers on the back of my car.

I don't think either Sheila or I had any realistic expectation that we could influence the outcome that night — and it didn't matter, I guess. We were experiencing the "Yes we can" moment of our generation.

It turned out that we couldn't — but, in a way, we did.

Because of Gerry Ferraro, women could dream of something of which only little boys were encouraged to dream before. Blacks can do more than dream today — and, I suppose, someday in the future, Hispanics and Asians and gays will join them, if they haven't already.

I had heard little of Ferraro before Mondale chose her to be his running mate, and I heard relatively little from her after that campaign — except for 2008, when she was part of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

For the most part, she played her role on the national stage in 1984, then stepped back to let others take the spotlight.

Gerry Ferraro blazed the trail. She played her role in American history.

She fought the good fight.

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