Under attack, VP trailblazer Geraldine Ferraro faced 250 reporters at ‘marathon press conference’

Geraldine Ferraro waves as supporters cheer at a rally in Spokane, Wash., in September 1984. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Frank Johnston

In the hours before the most high-stakes moment of her political career, Geraldine Ferraro turned to the heavens.

“OK, God,” she said. “Please help me.”

She asked her mother for divine help, too.

“Say a prayer for me,” she told her mom over the phone, according to her autobiography. “Everything I’ve worked for will ride on the next few hours.”

It was August 1984. Ferraro, an elementary school teacher-turned-lawyer-turned-prosecutor-turned-congresswoman, had recently been selected by Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale as his running mate. Ferraro, a representative from Queens, was the first woman to appear on a major party ticket 36 years before California Sen. Kamala D. Harris made history by being selected by Democrat Joe Biden as the first woman of color on a major party ticket.

Harris came under immediate attack by President Donald Trump.

For Ferraro, it took longer for the positive media glow to give way to tougher coverage about her background and qualifications. Questions emerged about her family’s finances, including her husband’s real estate company and rumored ties to organized crime.

It became clear to Ferraro and the campaign that the only way to stop the questions was to answer them – all of them. A news conference was scheduled. Ferraro would stand before reporters and, no matter how long it took, answer questions until there were none left.

Today, Ferraro’s performance is remembered for ushering “in the crisis communications tactic of the marathon press conference, in which a spokesperson attempts to quash a crisis by taking virtually every question the media can think of,” according to PR Daily, which covers the world of public relations.

That day, Ferraro was nervous but confident, writing that:

“I wasn’t worried about getting rattled. As a trial lawyer I’d handled myself in adverse situations before. I wasn’t worried about what I was going to say, either. I was going to go out there and tell the people honestly and directly what had happened and what I knew about it. What I was worried about was the press. The outcome would all depend on their response.”

When she arrived at the news conference, she was astonished by what she saw. There were as many as 250 reporters and three dozen TV cameras.

“I was not flattered by the size of the group,” Ferraro wrote. “Now I would be the target.”

But Ferraro, who died in 2011, was not intimidated. In fact, she saw the size of “my jury, my prosecutors, and my judges” as a political advantage. “I tried to call on everybody at least once,” she wrote.

Ferraro faced questions over unpaid taxes and accusations that she hadn’t properly reported certain transactions connected to her husband’s company on financial disclosure forms.

“I did not want to know his business then and I don’t want to know it now,” she said, according to coverage in The Washington Post. “At no time did I violate any trust placed in me by my constituents.”

Had she considered resigning?

Far from it.

“That’s wishful thinking by the Republicans,” she said. “I consider myself an asset. I consider us a winning team, and I’ll invite you to the White House in January.”

As the questions continued, Ferraro grew more confident, showing command not just over complicated financial matters, but also in controlling the room. She answered a reporter’s hostile question with this answer: “Now you know better than that.”

Ferraro was winning.

“At one point in the news conference,” The Washington Post reported, “reporters booed one colleague and hooted down another whose questions struck his colleagues as obstreperous.”

And Ferraro kept going. And going.

“The questions went on until they became repetitious,” Ferraro wrote. “That’s just what I wanted.”

With Ferraro showing no signs of ending the news conference, an aide informed reporters that there were five minutes left.

“How about 15?” Ferraro countered.

When there were finally no more questions, Ferraro ended the news conference. It had gone on more than 80 minutes. As she left, “some television cameraman applauded,” The Post reported.

The headlines were exactly what the campaign needed to move on.

“Ferraro: Back with Spunk,” USA Today’s headline read. The L.A. Times said she had met the moment with “toughness and aplomb.” Time’s cover headline the following week said, “Ferraro Fights Back.”

There was just one critic left to deal with – the conservative columnist George Will. He had sent her roses as a sort of apology, writing in a card that, “Has anyone told you you are cute when you’re mad?”

Ferraro called Will to thank him for the roses, she wrote. But there was something she needed to say.

“Vice presidents aren’t cute,” Ferraro told him.

And then she hung up.



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