Pinkerton: That Time When Democrats’ Vetting of a Female Vice Presidential Candidate Went Awry

Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro
Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Male Democrat presidential nominees don’t always do a good job of vetting their female vice presidential choices. Admittedly, there’s only been one such instance in the past, back in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate—and she didn’t work out so well.

So to put that history in baseball terms, the Democrats’ historic record is no hits, one error—or .000.  

Today, of course, in 2020, Joe Biden has just picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, and so we’ll see how the Democrats do in their second outing with a lady at bat.

Yet in the meantime, we might gain some insight into the proper vetting of a running mate, or lack thereof, from a new book by John B. Roberts, Reagan’s Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Re-election Campaign’s Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro. 

Roberts knows—because he was there. Beginning in the late 70s, Roberts had worked for Ronald Reagan; his immediate boss, however, was Lyn Nofziger, the hardboiled D-Day-veteran-turned-reporter who had served as press secretary in the Gipper’s very first campaign, his successful 1966 bid for the governorship of California.  

Roberts gets right to the point: “During the 1984 presidential campaign, I and a colleague were put in charge of a secret investigation of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate.” That colleague was Art Teele, Republican lawyer who had earlier served in Reagan’s sub-cabinet.   

Roberts continues, “This book is my political memoir of how the White House and Reagan-Bush ’84, the president’s reelection committee, handled the unprecedented challenge posed by a female vice-presidential contender.” And he adds, “The details of how our opposition research operation was run and why it was so effective have been kept secret for decades.” 

As Roberts relates, he was first persuaded not to reveal any of his activities at the request of Stuart K. Spencer, who had been Reagan’s top political adviser for nearly a quarter-century. And yet, Roberts adds, the recent flap over Christopher Steele, the peddler of the now-discredited “Russia dossier” on Donald Trump, got him thinking that people should have a better understanding of how opposition research should function in a campaign.  

Thirty-six years later, Roberts obviously believes that the details of his work—in contrast to the Steele dossier—can withstand scrutiny. The Steele document, which was so widely spread by an over-eager MSM in 2016-7, then provoked Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which haunted the Trump administration for more than two years. And yet, Roberts writes, the Steele dossier “is more appropriately thought of as a product of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.”  

How the dodgy Steele dossier metastasized into a run-amok inquiry will be the subject, of course, of many books. And yet in the meantime, we have Reagan’s Cowboys to show us how legitimate opposition research can be collected, assembled and utilized. So the Trump campaign might take note.  

For his part, Roberts was well-qualified for the role. He has, shall we say, hovered around the federal intelligence community for the entirety of his career, and so the ideas of discretion and compartmentalization came naturally to him; of all the people working on the Ferraro case, only he and Teele knew all the details. 

As a matter of full disclosure, I should pause here to relate that I first met Roberts in the 1980 Reagan campaign, and the two of us worked together again in the 1984 reelection campaign—and we’ve been friendly ever since. However, the revelations in this book were new to me, as I was never in one of his operational compartments. So while I’m mentioned several times in Reagan’s Cowboys, I had no involvement in any of these efforts. 

Indeed, Reagan’s Cowboys is something of a memoir of Robert’s career with the 40th president, and as such, it’s a time machine back to the days of typewriters, hard-line telephones, and Marlboro cigarets that one could light up anywhere—even on a passenger jet. 

For instance, his chapter on Reagan’s trip to Normandy beach in 1984, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day, is worthy of its own book. Roberts worked as an advance man for the trip, helping coordinate movements and logistics. And yet amidst the drudgery of checking travel times and power sources, he kept a keen eye not only on the history of the battle, but also on the history that Reagan was making.  

In fact, Reagan’s trip kicked off a new, almost cinematic, era of presidential pageantry; the White House’s image-maestro, Mike Deaver, wanted Reagan’s every step to be an arresting tableau that would play well on television. We can add that this showmanship was in the highest of causes: celebrating the valor of American GIs in their epic confrontation with Hitlerism.  

Moreover, Reagan’s pilgrimage inspired a renaissance of thinking about World War Two; one of those on the trip was NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who was inspired to write The Greatest Generation, that watershed book of oral history about what’s remembered as the Good War. 

Yet the focus of Reagan’s Cowboys is the “oppo” effort on Ferraro, who, at the time of her selection as Mondale’s running mate, on July 12, 1984, was in the middle of her third term as a congresswoman from Queens, New York.   

The media were giddy about Ferraro’s selection, for two reasons: First, reporters felt excitement about the first woman to be named to a major-party ticket; and second, pressies hoped that Ferraro could galvanize women to vote for Mondale, who was then trailing Reagan by ten or more points. Roberts recalls a Reagan pollster, Chuck Rund, telling him of Ferraro’s selection, “The Democratic base is energized by this. It’s injected energy into Mondale’s campaign.”

Thus, as Roberts recalls, Reagan’s reelection was no sure thing. Indeed, the previous five presidents—John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter—had all seen their presidencies cut short, one way or another, and it seemed possible that a similar fate could befall Reagan.  

As Roberts writes, “A myth of inevitability about Reagan’s 1984 reelection victory arose and solidified over the years, like layers of sediment turning to stone.”  And yet he continues, “there was nothing inevitable about it. It took hard work, luck, daring, and risk to get Ronald Reagan reelected.” He adds further, “If Geraldine Ferraro’s background had been blemish-free, she might have attracted more support to the ticket.” 

But Ferraro wasn’t blemish-free. Not even close. And it’s Roberts’ job to tell us how those blemishes were revealed.  

Interestingly, the first real inkling that there was something seriously wrong with Ferraro came from Manhattan lawyer Roy Cohn. The flamboyant Cohn is long dead, but during his long and stormy career, he was an aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy and then a lawyer for an up-and-coming real estate developer named Donald Trump. (The future 45th president is not a figure in Roberts’ book.) 

Cohn was always an active Republican, and so he was happy to help dig dirt on a local politician he knew well. Cohn told Roberts and Teele that Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, were both “mobbed up,” connected, in fact, to the notorious Gambino branch of the Mafia.   

Roberts was interested to hear of Cohn’s allegations, but he knew that he needed to verify them before the material could be weaponized by the campaign. He writes, “If what Cohn said was true, it would be devastating to the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. But if it wasn’t true or couldn’t be backed up by evidence, it might backfire on us.” 

In the meantime, other tips began to trickle in. For instance, a letter-writer dubbing himself “Quixote” wrote in to say that Zaccaro was the landlord of a gay bar. That fact in and of itself wasn’t damaging, and yet as he analyzed every tip, Roberts had to wonder whether he was being tipped with valuable information—or being played with misinformation.  

After all, there was a risk to being over-eager. If a Republican presidential campaign became too hungry to clobber its Democrat challenger, well, down that road lies the disastrous dirty tricks-ing of Watergate. And Roberts and Teele wanted none of that, telling Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins, “We won’t break any laws, and we won’t leave any fingerprints. I’ll let you know when we’ve got something, but I’ll leave out the details about how.”

So Roberts and Teele put together multiple teams, each assigned a piece of the Ferraro case. And these were colorful crews. One of them, run by Myles Ambrose, an Irish-American former prosecutor, called itself—trigger warning!—the “Guinea Chasers.” “Guinea,” of course, is a slur on Italian-Americans. One can be offended by such ethnic nastiness and yet, at the same time, be grateful to Roberts for giving us history as it actually happened, uncensored and un-politically corrected. 

Indeed, Rogers gives us glimpses of a huge cast of characters in Reaganworld back then—including Nofziger, Rollins, Lee Atwater, Jim Baker, Dick Darman, Robert Novak, and Roger Ailes. And oh yes, he provides vignettes about people who keep popping up even today, including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Stef Halper. 

In fact, because his portraiture is as complex as the protagonists themselves, Roberts titles one chapter “Frenemies” because, on plenty of occasions, Roberts and Teele believed that they were at risk of being set up to take the fall, should anything go wrong, by their own CYA-minded colleagues. As Teele said to Roberts, “Our own people are the enemy.” That was an exaggeration, bespeaking Teele’s paranoid state, and yet Roberts thought to himself, “How do you know your friends from your enemies? Your enemies stab you in the back. Your friends stab you in the front.” 

The Roberts-Teele effort was greatly accelerated by the energetic journalism of a few media outlets, including the New York Post, New York magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Yes, most reporters wanted the Mondale-Ferraro ticket to win, but some of them, even more, wanted a good story.  

All that digging, both political and journalistic, bore fruit on September 12, 1984, when the House Ethics Committee voted unanimously to open an investigation into the finances of Ferraro and Zaccaro. Indeed, in December of that year, after the election, the House committee concluded that Ferraro had, in fact, violated House rules, although the issue was mooted because she would soon be leaving Congress. As for Zaccaro, he would later plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, and be indicted, and then acquitted, on felony charges.  

Yet the result of all these revelations—including, too, about her own parents—was that Ferraro’s political career was derailed. She never held public office again; she was defeated twice, in fact, in Democrat primaries. So yes, she was, indeed, blemished.  

In the meantime, of course, Reagan had won a mammoth reelection in November 1984, carrying 49 states, including Ferraro’s New York State.

And as for Art Teele, he returned to his home state of Florida, where he enjoyed limited success in local Miami politics. And yet then, his personal demons took hold; in 2005, he walked into the offices of the Miami Herald and shot and killed himself.  

For his part, in the decades since, Roberts enjoyed a career in international political consulting, taking him to such far-flung locales as Argentina, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Costa Rica, and Ukraine. In between, he consulted for the legendarily pioneering TV talk show, The McLaughlin Group.  

So one imagines that Roberts has another book or two in him. And yet for Republican political junkies, and for students of the art of oppo, this book will do just fine in the meantime.

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