MOB RULE: JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK ON MORNING IN AMERICA: “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets. The parallels go on . . .
Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices
What is an issue from the 1984 Reagan campaign that is also important to a millennial–and why?
The economy. Until 1983, America had a terrible economy for a decade. It began with an oil embargo and gas shortages. We waited in long lines to try to fill our cars, at prices that spiked more than 150 percent. I was a college graduate in 1973. Jobs were impossible to find, and when you did find them, wages couldn’t keep up with double-digit inflation. I vividly remember how hard it was to land a job and how it seemed impossible to ever buy a home. It was really dismal, a lot like it has been for millennials.
Reagan was a highly controversial president, it should be recalled. There were mass protests in the streets, a difficult economy, Russian interference in elections; the parallels go and on. For those who do not remember that time, this look backward may reveal that no matter how bad things seem, they can turn around for the better.
Why hasn’t the story of the 1984 reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro been told before–and do you think reasons had to do with protecting participants?
By design, only a handful of us knew the full extent of the operation, even when it was happening. We had lots of people working on the investigations, but they didn’t know everyone who was involved or what people outside of their cluster were doing. It was a compartmented operation and only I, my colleague Art Teele, and the Reagans’ closest advisor, Stu Spencer, knew the complete story. In late 1984, an editor at Knopf told me he was interested in publishing a book about the press coverage of the campaigns, which would have included the Ferraro operation. Stu Spencer asked me not to write it because he thought it might embarrass the Reagans, especially Nancy. So we kept silent for decades.
Besides yourself, name the first Reagan Cowboy to come to mind–and who was he or she?
Mac Baldrige. He was Reagan’s Commerce Secretary and although he was an Ivy Leaguer and successful businessman, he grew up on a ranch and had been a professional roper, a real rodeo cowboy. In 1988 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. He and Reagan shared a love of horses and often went riding together. Baldrige died from injuries in a freak riding accident. Of course, the second name that comes to mind is Colonel Oliver North, who was a principal in the Iran-Contra affair. He was one of Reagan’s cowboys, whether they went horseback riding or not.
Why was it worth staying with the campaign as you found yourself involved with organized crime?
That’s a really good question. My mortgage was definitely a factor. But the main thing that kept me on the job was that Reagan declared war on organized crime in 1983. Attorney General William French Smith ordered U.S. attorneys and the FBI to make the Mafia and other crime groups a top priority. At the same time Reagan created a high-profile presidential commission to publicly spotlight the dangers. One question Art Teele and I could never answer was this: was it just a coincidence that a relatively unknown politician with extensive connections to organized crime was picked to run for vice president? Or was the Mafia trying to put someone they could coerce into doing their bidding into the White House? Because we couldn’t discount that possibility, we stuck with our investigations until the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated.
What do you see as major differences in opposition research then and now?
The dossier of derogatory information British former spy Christopher Steele developed on Trump in 2016 embodies the differences. Even though the FBI and CIA could not verify the chief allegations in Steele’s dossier, it was used to justify secret surveillance. The report became part of a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and was shared with the press, senior officials in the intelligence community, and in the Justice Department. Each and every one of those actions would never have happened in 1984, at least not on my watch or on Art Teele’s watch. They violate every important principle of a democratic election, from abuse of executive authority to potentially introducing Russian propaganda into a presidential campaign.
We verified the information we uncovered about Geraldine Ferraro before we disclosed it to anyone. We then required the main news organizations we worked with to independently verify our leads, as a condition of our sharing the information. We refused to involve Executive Branch agencies in our investigative work, and the one time we found out someone, on our side, had tried to do so, we shut him down. Without subpoena powers, without court warrants, without FISA court approved eavesdropping, we nonetheless uncovered politically damaging information. Some of that information led to a congressional investigation, unanimously approved by every Republican and Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, into Geraldine Ferraro’s compliance with the law. Unlike in recent years, where the Steele dossier’s allegations remain unproven and investigations into Russian collusion have come up empty-handed, the 1984 investigation into Ferraro found numerous violations of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
The second part of the Stage Voices interview with John B. Roberts II will appear next Tuesday.
Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
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Visit the Web site of John B. Roberts II
Read Part 2 of this interview
Photos: North, Guardian; Steele, Business Insider
Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
MAUREEN DOWD NY TIMES ARTICLE, 8/8
No Wrist Corsages, Please
Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?
Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?
By Maureen Dowd
Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — On the cusp of Joe Biden teaming up with a woman, I am casting back to my time covering the first woman who was a serious contender for veep.
The feminist fairy tale — which began with women crying and popping champagne on the convention floor in San Francisco in 1984 — had a sad ending. Cinderella with ashes in her mouth.
It’s hard to fathom, but it took another 36 years for a man to choose to put a woman on the Democratic ticket with him. To use Geraldine Ferraro’s favorite expression, “Gimme a break!”
After Walter Mondale picked Ferraro, a Queens congresswoman, the first man and woman to share a ticket had to consider all sorts of things: Could he kiss her on the cheek? (No.) Could he call her “dear” or “honey”? (No.) Could they hug? (No.) Could they tell jokes, as Johnny Carson did, about how angry Joan Mondale would be when her husband kept coming home late and saying he had been in private sessions with the vice president? (No.)
They wanted to be seen as peers, more TV anchor team than suburban couple. Mondale could not seem paternal or patronizing or use phrases like “a ticket with broad appeal.” Ferraro, who walked faster, had to stop bounding ahead of her running mate.
They knew that the way they conducted themselves would forever recast the perception of men and women in politics. So they were wary in the beginning.
As one Democratic consultant put it at the time, “He looked like a teenager on the first date with that ‘How in the world do you pin the corsage on her?’ problem.’’
Before a fund-raiser in New York once, a Democratic official presented Ferraro with a wrist corsage. She refused to put it on. “That I will not do,’’ she told the man politely.
Sometimes, the introductory music for the petite blonde was the 1925 ditty, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” One magazine hailed her as “America’s Bride.”
When the ticket headed South, Jim Buck Ross, Mississippi’s 70-year-old commissioner of agriculture, called the 48-year-old Ferraro “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins.
Ferraro’s historic campaign was full of images never before seen on the presidential trail. As she went onstage, Gerry, as she was universally known, would hand off her pocketbook to an aide. Her charming press spokesman, Francis O’Brien, sometimes ironed her dresses — as her main foreign affairs adviser, Madeleine Albright, looked on.
It was fascinating to see age-old customs through the eyes of a woman candidate.
“People hand me their babies,’’ Ferraro marveled. “As a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who’s a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick?”
It was the first time a candidate running for the White House had talked about abortion using the phrase, “If I were pregnant,” and about foreign policy with the phrase, “As the mother of a draft-age son.” The “smartass white boys” around Mondale, as many feminists called them privately, got nervous when she talked about being a mother. How could she be tough and a mother, they wondered, not seeing the obvious: Mothers are tougher than anyone. Fearing white male backlash, they tried to control her bouncy Queens persona.
Ferraro walked the same tightrope that tripped up Hillary Clinton when she wondered if she should wheel around in that debate and tell the creeping Donald Trump to scram.
If she got angry, would she seem shrill, that dread word, and turn off voters? The Mondale inner circle wanted Ferraro to play the traditional running-mate role of hatchet man. But Gloria Steinem warned, “Nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.”
George H.W. Bush excitedly proclaimed after his debate with Ferraro that he had tried to “kick a little ass”; his press aide called Ferraro “bitchy”; and Barbara Bush said Ferraro was a word that “rhymes with rich.”
What started as a goose bump blind date with history curdled, as Ferraro got dragged into a financial mess involving her husband’s real estate business.
Right after the Reagan landslide, Democrats began muttering about returning to white Anglo-Saxon men on the ticket and not having any more “feminized” tickets that didn’t appeal to them.
I called women across the country for a magazine autopsy I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.
A 36-year-old mother of three from Bristol, Tenn., told me: “I put myself in her shoes. Could I sit down and logically make decisions for everybody without cracking up? I think women in general are weak. I know that sounds awful. But we women know we have our faults.’’
The next year, Ferraro put out a memoir talking about how depressed and paranoid she got, and how much she cried, admitting that she was not “prepared for the depth of the fury, the bigotry, and the sexism my candidacy would unleash.”
She said that Mondale’s male aides were so condescending that she instructed them to “pretend every time they talk to me or even look at me that I’m a gray-haired Southern gentleman, a senator from Texas.” (In her memoir, Sarah Palin aimed her sharpest barbs at John McCain’s aides.)
We don’t know whom Biden will choose but we do know the sort of hell she will endure at the hands of Team Trump. Even after the #MeToo revolution, even with women deciding this election, have the undercurrents of sexism in America changed so much? Hollywood, after all, only just began forking over major budgets to women directors, after years of absurdly stereotyping them.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany, Lara Trump and Jeanine Pirro — the Fox Force Five of retrograde Trumpworld — will have the knives out. Conservatives will undermine the veep candidate with stereotypes. She’s bitchy. She’s a nag. She’s aggressive. She’s ambitious. Who’s wearing the pants here, anyhow?
I asked Francis O’Brien if he thought, three and a half decades after he watched the sandstorm of sexism around Ferraro, whether her successor would have an easier time.
“I think it’s the same, in many ways,” he said. “This is a white Anglo-Saxon country founded by white Anglo-Saxon men for white Anglo-Saxon men. Sexism is like race. It’ll pop out. It’s in our DNA. We’re one of the few Western countries where women have never made it to the top.”
But on the bright side, when Chuck Schumer wanted to call Nancy Pelosi a lioness on Friday, referring to her negotiations with Republicans on the relief bill, he checked with her first to see if she would prefer lion.
The Speaker chose lioness.
Credit…Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images
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